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Reports that U.S. may sell F-35 jets to the Emirates raise concern in Israel

Researcher warns of erosion of Israeli air superiority • Netanyahu assures “Israel’s qualitative advantage will continue” • Sale may offset power balance between Iran, U.S. allies in Persian Gulf, but at cost to Israeli exclusivity over advanced F-35 system.

An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet flies during an air show at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev Desert, Dec. 29, 2016. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet flies during an air show at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev Desert, Dec. 29, 2016. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Reports that the United States is considering selling its advanced, state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates recently raised concern in Israel after the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv published an article on Monday warning of the danger to Israel.

In response to these reports, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured that Israel’s “qualitative advantage is clear to all. It is reflected also in this weapons system, and this is how it will continue,” he said, referring to the F-35 stealth fighter dubbed in Israel “Adir,” meaning “mighty” in Hebrew.

Under Netanyahu, Israel became the first country outside of the United States to boast a fleet of F-35s in 2017.

The article by research fellow Shimon Arad warned that “Israel’s aerial superiority over the next decade will to a large degree depend on the technological advantages that the F-35 fighter affords it. Consequently, Israel must retain its regional exclusivity of this platform and work to delay the release of fifth-generation fighters to other countries in the region for as long as possible.”

The rationale behind the American consideration is that providing the UAE—a key American ally in the Persian Gulf—with this capability would tip the regional power balance against Iran. This would also benefit the U.S. economy, specifically to Lockheed Martin, the arms manufacturer that produces the jets.

Arad said that ending Israeli exclusivity over the F-35 would contradict U.S. legislation from 2008 that solidified the American policy that Israel’s qualitative superiority must be protected. According to this legislation, Israel must have technologically superior American weapons systems in its service compared to Arab states.

That said, because of certain divisions in Washington, a clear and unequivocal statement by Israel must persuade Israel’s supporters in the Trump administration and Congress to act against the possibility of selling the planes to the Arab countries.

“Israel’s air power is central to its image and deterrent ability,” said Arad. “It protects the country’s airspace, provides the first and multi-arena response to both immediate and more distant threats, enables retaliation and retribution missions for attacks on Israel, and plays a central role in managing military operations on various fronts. However, Israel’s aerial superiority has been eroded in recent years, due to a combination of two force buildup processes in Arab states—the improvement of their air-defense systems and the massive acquisition of advanced fighter planes.”

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