There have been reports in the Israeli and Arab media in recent days saying that Israel has asked for F-22 stealth jets from the United States, in order to maintain its qualitative military edge after the U.S. sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates.
These reports are based on an assessment that the Trump administration is willing to do almost anything – including diplomatic and security intervention – in order to promote arms deals and to help friends.
That’s what Trump did on the eve of the election, and he may do the same during the transition period (until next January) if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins. That same behavior and way of thinking also led to Trump’s speedy signing of the normalization accords with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. Given that, why not try for the most advanced aircraft in the world?
The only reason Israel might be interested in the F-22 is out of a desire to diversify its fighter jet fleet and improve its loading and bombing capacity. From 2010 until 2015, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were toying with the idea of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities – or to be more precise, pretending to threaten to in the guise of psychological warfare, they considered asking the Obama administration to let them purchase powerful, laser-guided “bunker-buster” bombs.
The administration didn’t approve the sale. But even if it had, the question would have arisen about which aircraft could carry such massive weaponry. The Israel Air Force has no B-2 Bombers. We can assume that the Israel Defense Forces and defense establishment have considered this issue, and if it’s ever decided to bomb Iran, alternative solutions will be found. It was also reported this week that the U.S. Air Force has decided to purchase huge transport planes from Lockheed Martin, on which those monstrous bombs (GBU-57s) – each of which weighs 14 tons – can be loaded.
Israel’s defense minister, chief of staff and IAF commander are well versed in all this. If we add the fact that in 2012 the United States discontinued the purchase of the F-22, which is considered a particularly expensive aircraft, for its own air force, and the fact it cannot be exported for fear that its stealth technology could be leaked, reports that the Americans approved a sale to Israel have zero basis in fact, to put it mildly.
They do attest, however, to the “end-of-term” atmosphere enveloping the twilight of Trump’s first, and perhaps only, spell in office. It’s a fraught and dangerous atmosphere for many reasons – both in the United States, of course, but also with regard to Israel.
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Staying on the fence
As the date of the U.S. presidential election neared, so too did tension and vigilance among Israel’s intelligence community. The cause was a desire not to intervene in the election in favor of one of the candidates, and to ensure that intelligence sources maintained total silence and that no secret material would leak that might affect the final result.
“Of course we’re following the elections in the United States,” a former Mossad official told Haaretz. “It’s our duty to research, analyze and write position papers, and assess how they will affect Israel’s foreign and security policy. But we’re making sure that no part of them reaches the general public. It would be a disaster if that happens – especially if Joe Biden is elected.”
Despite the desire to remain on the fence in every sense, it’s clear that many members of Israel’s intelligence community would like to see Trump reelected for a second term.
That’s certainly true of Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, who are Netanyahu’s confidants and yes-men. From the prime minister’s perspective, and that of the Israeli right and considerable parts of the public and the Knesset (including Kahol Lavan and Yesh Atid-Telem), Trump’s pro-Israel activities – certainly on the Palestinian issue – have exceeded all expectations.
The U.S. president has showered Israel with gifts over the past four years and accepted many of Netanyahu’s suggestions and ideas regarding withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, reimposing crippling economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, and reducing European Union involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump also stopped paying hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and authored the “deal of the century,” which further undermined the Palestinians’ rights to sovereignty in the West Bank. He also urged Arab leaders to change their traditional policy of conditioning normalization with Israel on the evacuation of the settlements and Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Agreements with three countries resulted.
And yet Yossi Cohen – who doesn’t hide his intention to enter politics at the end of his Mossad term in June 2021 – and Netanyahu both know there are no free lunches, and certainly not with Trump. Netanyahu and Cohen’s relationship with Trump is not one of equals, bearing more resemblance to that of a horse and its rider.
Trump has the whip, but he doesn’t have to use it; Netanyahu and Cohen have already been tamed. They’re well aware of their limitations and will humbly accept almost any dictate from the president. They swallowed their pride when he announced he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. “That was a severe blow to our policy,” a former Mossad official admitted, “but in the end Netanyahu and Cohen managed to persuade Trump to leave at least a few hundred of them there.”
If Netanyahu is the architect and ideologue of the intimate relationship with the Trump administration, Cohen and, to a lesser extent, Ben-Shabbat are its implementers. They’re also the ones who provide Netanyahu with the intelligence assessments that justify his tight tango with Trump.
The official policy that Israel does not intervene in the domestic affairs of its most important ally has been maintained with a few exceptions over the years (one being words attributed to Israel’s then-ambassador in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, which were interpreted as support for Richard Nixon). From the establishment of the state until Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009, this policy was based on the principle that democratic countries don’t try to sabotage other democratic regimes. This principle was particularly maintained because of the strategic alliance between Washington and Jerusalem – an alliance that’s almost unparalleled anywhere in the world.
The strict adherence to professional behavior has enabled the advancement of strategic cooperation between the two countries up to the highest levels. It includes joint military exercises; the deployment of troops and equipment, including U.S. radar and early warning systems, on Israeli soil; the transfer of raw intelligence from the U.S. National Security Agency to IDF Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200; and Mossad and CIA operations throughout the Middle East.
A clear example of the close intelligence ties between the two countries is the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in February 2008. The operation in Damascus to kill Hezbollah’s mega-terrorist is attributed to the Mossad and the CIA, from the planning stage through to its execution.
Like ‘Ocean’s Eleven’
The gradual change in Israeli policy intensified in 2015 when Netanyahu was elected to his fourth term. Contrary to the position of most defense establishment heads, but with the support of Cohen (then head of the National Security Council), the prime minister contacted the Republicans who controlled both the House and Senate. He sought to torpedo the Iranian nuclear deal reached by President Barack Obama and five major powers.
That effort proved unsuccessful. But Trump entered the White House some 18 months later and Netanyahu and Cohen grew in confidence. In a daring intelligence operation in January 2018, Mossad agents infiltrated a warehouse on the outskirts of Tehran and stole Iran’s nuclear archive in the dead of night. The operation was a result of the teamwork of hundreds of analysts, field agents, cybersecurity experts from the Mossad and Military Intelligence. However, Cohen and Netanyahu took credit for the achievement for their own personal PR purposes.
In an unprecedented move, Cohen invited Israeli and foreign journalists, as well as nuclear experts from the United Stated and Europe, to his office in Glilot in north Tel Aviv, so they might be impressed by his efforts. During those meetings, he compared the operation to scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster “Ocean’s Eleven.”
Ignoring the advice of most of his subordinates and colleagues in the intelligence community, Cohen also encouraged Netanyahu to call a press conference in order to display documents from the stolen archive. Netanyahu’s presser and Cohen’s meetings in Washington boosted Trump in his decision to revoke the nuclear agreement. Only after the fact did it emerge that the information obtained from the archival documents and drawings didn’t provide much new information. Even so, it was definitely a psychological blow to Iranian morale.
At a certain point, Netanyahu seemingly became envious of Trump’s efforts to cut his intelligence community down to size and began to try to intervene in appointments in the Israeli intelligence community – as he does and attempts to do in the legal system, other government bodies and the media.
An echo of this desire was heard a few years ago from lawmaker David Bitan, at the time Netanyahu’s attack dog in Likud. “Why are all the heads in the defense establishment left-wingers?” he asked. Well, they aren’t. They’re professionals, public servants and Israeli patriots. But that’s not enough for Netanyahu.
Nor is he satisfied that his loyal disciples Cohen and Ben-Shabbat (whom the prime minister has already earmarked as the next Shin Bet security service chief) are working alongside him. Netanyahu tried to intervene in the appointment of the IDF chief of staff, is delaying the appointment of a permanent police chief and is trying to appoint “his” people – officers and high-ranking intelligence personnel and police officials. Despite the efforts of Cohen, Ben-Shabbat, Netanyahu and other loyalists of the prime minister to introduce politicization into the defense and intelligence organizations, virtually all of them have remained statesmanlike and professional.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that the Mossad and the other espionage organizations would even think of helping Trump get reelected,” said Haim Tomer, who previously headed two Mossad departments. Another Mossad official stressed that “even if Cohen and Ben-Shabbat would like to see Trump reelected, they understand the rules of the game and wouldn’t dare order any intervention in the U.S. election campaign.”
Even Netanyahu understands that. In a broadcast phone call from the White House in which Trump announced the agreement between Israel and Sudan, he asked his Israeli partner on the other end of the line, “Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal?” To Trump’s chagrin, Netanyahu avoided answering.