Ensuring that Israel maintains military superiority over its neighbors has been a principle of U.S. foreign policy for decades, but concerns are mounting in Jerusalem and Washington that President Trump’s breakthrough Middle East diplomacy is putting that principle to the test.
The U.S.-brokered normalization accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates last month — the first such accord with an Arab state in decades — has been accompanied by a push from the UAE to buy Lockheed Martin’s state-of-the-art F-35 Lightning II fighter jets for its military.
Mr. Trump told Fox News that he “had no problem” with selling the F-35s to the UAE, especially on the heels of the Gulf nation’s historic decision to sign the Abraham Accords, normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel.
“They would like to order quite a few F-35s. It’s the greatest fighter in the world,” the president said at a White House press conference. “They’ve definitely got the money to pay for it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly opposed the sale, and his aides have tried to shoot down press reports that the deal was the private price for the normalization accord. Israel right now is the only military in the region with F-35s in its fleet.
Israel’s supporters in Congress are also raising fears that the sale could tip the balance of power in the region in ways that will be hard to predict — or contain.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, Pennsylvania Republican, and several other lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan bill that would reiterate America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge. The measure would require the president to consult with Israel to ensure that any of their concerns are settled and report to Congress within 60 days on the impact of the sale.
“For decades, Israel has been a key strategic ally and friend of the United States, and it is crucial that we do everything we can to support our allies,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “Despite the incredible steps towards peace that have been made, there are still plenty of entities that wish to harm Israel.”
Officials with the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America said some members of Israel’s military leadership, like Mr. Netanyahu, have strong reservations about the F-35 sale to the UAE.
“They did not seem to be in the loop in the negotiations,” JINSA President Michael Makovsky said last week during an online discussion about the deal.
The UAE is not the only country seeking to end Israel’s exclusive claim to the F-35. The Reuters news agency reported late last week that Qatar also had put in a request to purchase the fighter jet.
Retired Air Force General Chuck Wald, a former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, said he has always been a supporter of ensuring that Israel has a clear technological advantage over any other nation in the Middle East.
“I think Israel’s [qualitative military edge] is not necessarily threatened by this sale to the UAE,” he said. “I think their air force is the best air force in the world — including ours — from the standpoint of capability.”
Israel became the first country to select the F-35 through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program in October 2010. It received its first F-35, known in Israel as the “Adir,” Hebrew for “Strong One,” six years later. The Israeli air force plans to purchase at least 50 more.
“Israel always gets top-notch equipment. Nothing is held back,” Gen. Wald said.
He isn’t surprised that other countries such as the UAE are eager to get their hands on F-35s. Its only resemblance to previous-generation fighter jets, he said, is that it has two wings and an engine.
“It is basically a flying computer. It’s able to penetrate into enemy territory, soak up massive amounts of information and send that information to other people who need it — rapidly,” Gen. Wald said. “The F-35 is almost like a quarterback. It’s a game-changer.”
Regional arms race
The Arab world is in the midst of a massive arms race, driven primarily by Iran and to a lesser extent Turkey. Israel has three neighbors — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — that are among the world’s largest buyers, said Jonathan Ruhe, JINSA’s director of foreign policy.
“These countries are willing to spend amply on defense. Most of those are highly advanced weapon systems,” Mr. Ruhe said. “The Arab arms race is a big factor.”
Despite its clear military superiority, Israel also is surrounded by potential adversaries and hot spots.
“Israel is caught in the middle,” Mr. Ruhe said.
Turkey was once a major Israeli ally, but the relationship has grown cold since nationalist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power. His government sharply criticized the normalization accords last month with the UAE and Bahrain as a betrayal of the Palestinians. But Gen. Wald was dismissive of Ankara’s ability to cause any serious trouble for Israel.
“I’ve been around Turkey a lot. I’ve had them under my command. The last thing the Israelis need to worry about is Turkey’s air force. They’re not very good,” he said. “Their ‘ground guys’ are pretty decent fighters, but Israel would kick their butt.”
Israeli strategists are concerned that — as was the case with Turkey — today’s ally could become tomorrow’s adversary. Mr. Makovsky said he believes the F-35 deal with the UAE will eventually be completed but that the Pentagon and White House could take steps to ease Israeli concerns.
The Obama administration signed a deal granting Israel $3.3 billion worth of U.S. military hardware, but the funding is doled out over a decade. It would help if the U.S. dispersed the rest of the money, Mr. Ruhe said.
“It’s effectively a line of credit to buy U.S. defense equipment. This wouldn’t add a dollar to the cost to the U.S. taxpayer,” he said.
The arms deal memorandum of understanding between Israel and the U.S. expires in 2027. JINSA officials recommend beginning the discussions now to put together the next program.
The United States maintains an arms depot in Israel that is left over from its competition with the Soviet Union.
“We built it in the Cold War to surge U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf when we thought there was a clear Soviet threat to the region,” Mr. Ruhe said.
But most of the munitions stored in the depot, such as nonprecision-guided “dumb” bombs, have inevitably become obsolete. The Pentagon never had much interest in upgrading the depot, he said.
“We recommend that the U.S. replenish and upgrade that stockpile,” Mr. Ruhe said. “It would have to have precision-guided munitions in it that the U.S. could use and Israel could draw on during wartime.”
The United States could also elevate Israel’s intelligence-sharing status to put it on the level with countries such as Australia or Britain, which are part of the “Five Eyes” alliance, Mr. Ruhe said.
It will likely take six years or more before any F-35 Lightning fighters become operational in the UAE’s air force. But Israel has immediate concerns in the region that must be addressed, Mr. Makovsky said.
“We’ve got to do whatever we can to mitigate Israel’s concerns about its ability to defend itself by itself,” he said.
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