Analysis

F-35 Sale to UAE: 'Netanyahu Knew... It's an Outrage'

Israeli security official says Netanyahu's conduct could result with the UAE getting advanced weaponry without a proper, professional discussion in Israel. But this is now Netanyahu's modus operandi

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Netanyahu standing in front of an F-35 fighter jet in 2019
Netanyahu standing in front of an F-35 fighter jet in 2019Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s body language in his short press conference Tuesday upon being released from the hospital said it all. Benjamin Netanyahu’s ostensible partner in the unity government, who had back surgery, is still suffering from severe pain. But his agony was heightened by the latest revelations about Netanyahu’s actions.

In the days of Gantz’s hospitalization, Netanyahu finalized a normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates behind his partner’s aching back, explained that he had kept Gantz in the dark for fear of leaks and, to top it off, tried to impute responsibility to Gantz for Washington’s emerging sale of F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE. Netanyahu lamely cited the fact that the subject had come up in one of their working meetings.

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Netanyahu, who is entitled to consider the agreement a significant strategic achievement, insists on sabotaging his success with his untoward methods. Following the report by Nahum Barnea in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth that the United States would sell advanced offensive drones and planes to the Emirates (implicitly with Israel’s tacit consent), the prime minister’s people issued a sharp, detailed denial.

But the statement actually recalled Netanyahu’s defense against the state comptroller’s accusations about Hamas’ tunnels after the 2014 Gaza war. Back then, too, the prime minister bombarded the media with quotations and references from meetings that supposedly dealt with the tunnel threat before the military operation.

But the comptroller was unconvinced. The quotations turned out to be culled very selectively from dozens of hours of discussions dealing mostly with other security issues. Netanyahu actually didn’t consider the danger of the tunnels in depth, asked few questions about them and didn’t draw up an appropriate strategy to address them ahead of the operation.

Something very similar – perhaps even more disturbing – happened this time as well. According to the prime minister’s aides, he met with U.S. Ambassador David Friedman on July 7 and “opposed the sale of F-35 jets and other advanced weapons of any sort in the Middle East.” The next day he fired off a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying Israel’s position remained the same after peace agreements.

Three weeks later, on July 29, Netanyahu met with Gantz, handed him a copy of his message to Pompeo and “updated the defense minister about his position” on the subject.

Strangely, Gantz and his aides don’t recall that the missive to Pompeo contained a direct mention of the F-35s – rather, it was a general statement of support for broadening relations with Arab states and the need to preserve the Israel Defense Forces’ qualitative military edge.

Even more seriously, perhaps, the prime minister’s people cite a discussion on the subject between the national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and air force chief Amikam Norkin on June 2. But, as Tal Lev-Ram reported in the daily Maariv, that conversation violated  standard procedures. Ben-Shabbat didn’t request Gantz’s authorization to meet with Norkin, as required. Norkin, it can be assumed, acted naively (a trait he’ll have to wean himself off). It’s hard to say the same for Ben-Shabbat, Netanyahu’s emissary.

This isn’t the first time a response by the Prime Minister’s Office, backed up by cries of “fake news,” has turned out problematic. It’s what Woodward and Bernstein called a “non-denial denial.” The prime minister denied outright Israeli consent to an arms deal between the United States and the UAE, adding that no such clause existed in the agreement between Israel and the Emirates.

But that’s not the point. The efforts by Congress ensuring Israel’s qualitative edge over its neighbors require only the U.S. president’s consultation with Israeli officials. In practice, Donald Trump can hear out Netanyahu and then do as he pleases.

There's no doubt that the prime minister is well aware of these nuances. The fact that he raised the subject several times in recent months looks more like the calculated creation of an alibi than a genuine, feasible effort to block the deal.

It’s possible that Yedioth Ahronoth’s headline went a bit too far and the administration didn’t give its official approval, with Israel’s consent, for an F-35 deal with the UAE. Within a few months we’ll know whether this marriage also includes an unwanted baby in the form of a U.S.-UAE advanced-weapons deal. At the moment it looks like Barnea is right, not Netanyahu.

Trump himself gave the deal his almost official sanction on Thursday, telling reporters that the Emirates “have the money and they would like to order quite a few F-35s.” He added: “They’d like to buy F-35s, we’ll see what happens. It’s under review, but they made a great advance in peace in the Middle East.”

The president then opened the floodgates of his stream of consciousness and poured infantile praise on the stealth plane. (“It’s the greatest fighter jet in the world, as you know, by stealth, totally stealth”) and on U.S. combat pilots (“These pilots that I meet, they look better than Tom Cruise and they’re definitely tougher, and he’s a nice guy”).

In the meantime, The New York Times furnished more details. The Emirates’ procurement request is being examined as part of a broad diplomatic move being devised by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who’s pushing for the deal to be consummated. Given that the balance of forces on one side includes Trump and Kushner, the UAE’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed and the giant aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, it’s not hard to guess how the decision will go, though the deal would require congressional approval.

This is the second time in a week that Trump, of all people, has pricked a balloon floated by Netanyahu for the Israeli public about the normalization agreement. The first time was when the prime minister  claimed that his plan to annex some of the West Bank settlements hadn’t been scrapped as part of the UAE deal but only suspended briefly. But then the president and his son-in-law declared publicly that it’s a long-term suspension.

A night ceremony to honor the reception of F-35s from the United States; the planes became operational in the IAF in late 2017.
A night ceremony to honor the reception of F-35s from the United States; the planes became operational in the IAF in late 2017.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Netanyahu method

“The whole system is being upended by this. It’s security recklessness. Netanyahu knew where Trump was going with the arms deal and didn’t tell us a thing,” an Israeli defense source told Haaretz on Thursday.

“Both the Ben Shabbat-Norkin conversation and the Netanyahu-Gantz meeting were part of the prime minister’s feelers without him showing his cards. We suspect that Netanyahu gave Trump a wink. The result will be that if the United States wishes, it will sell those planes, and with them offensive drones and other advanced weapons. It will happen without any prior professional discussion in Israel.

“After all, there’s a difference between 20 to 30 platforms [planes] like that, equipped with state-of-the-art technological systems, and two F-35s you can go for a joyride with in the Gulf. There’s a range of possibilities here that haven’t been discussed at all.”

This has been the Netanyahu method in recent years, and it’s only becoming more acute now that he’s locked into the government he established with his political adversaries and is waiting apprehensively for the resumption of his corruption trial in four months. The prime minister seems to be trying to create a quasi-presidential, even autocratic, regime in Israel, while weakening the checks and balances on his powers.

He’s concentrating the entire decision-making process in his hands and sharing his secrets with only a loyal circle of confidants, who don’t always possess the requisite knowledge on military and strategic issues. As part of this method, the relevant ministers (defense, foreign affairs) and the organizations concerned (the military and the other security branches) are being silenced and bypassed.

Examples abound: the deal involving the submarines and other vessels, his secret consent to Germany (his denials notwithstanding) to sell advanced submarines to Egypt, his long consideration of annexation plans without any sort of preparation by the defense chiefs.

The same approach was also evident in the first months of the coronavirus crisis. Netanyahu micromanaged the decisions with a handful of advisers and prevented defense officials, particularly the previous defense minister, Naftali Bennett, from shaping policy, for fear that Bennett would accumulate clout.

Netanyahu’s treatment of Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi reflects deep contempt. It’s clear he believes they’re not in his league in terms of knowledge and experience, and can’t compete with the ties he has forged with world leaders.

Well, he did run rings around them when he persuaded them to join the government, thereby saving himself and splitting the threatening Kahol Lavan bloc. But in diplomatic and security issues, a pattern is emerging that could have ruinous consequences.

The normalization with the Emirates, the looming F-35 deal and the annexation plans are all matters requiring thorough staff work and regular consultations with the experts, even if in the end the leader sticks to his original views. This perilous hubris could get Netanyahu making wrong decisions based on his assumption that only he is qualified to weigh the issues and decide.

Arguably, this is what happened to a degree in the coronavirus crisis. Israel is being buffeted as never before, economically even more than in terms of health – and Netanyahu tells us proudly that the situation in other countries is worse.

A drone made by Israel's Elbit Systems.
A drone made by Israel's Elbit Systems. Credit: Stringer / Reuters

Exports to the Gulf beckon

Two members of the Institute for National Security Studies – the director, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, and a senior research fellow, Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion – wrote this week that “the U.S. recently removed export restrictions on armed UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], and the UAE would at the very least be eager to vary its armed UAV fleet that is currently based on Chinese systems, and perhaps also to acquire F-35 stealth fighter jets.”

In their view, the easing of weapons export restrictions on the Gulf states “requires Israel’s attention to the entire range of related issues, including Israel’s defense exports, competition with Western manufacturers, perhaps in coordination with the U.S., and maintenance of Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region under the new circumstances. The significant potential in UAE investments in Israel will presumably be reviewed by the advisory committee supervising foreign investments that is of special importance, mainly in the context of China.”

The F-35 episode is regrettable in part because, strategically, the move involving the Emirates is extremely important. Netanyahu has managed to deepen ties with the Sunni states, strengthen the alliance with them against Iran, and annul the Palestinians’ veto power over normalization agreements between Arab states and Israel.

Now the vast economic potential for Israeli firms in the Gulf, not only defense contractors, will increase even further. No wonder the Iranians and Palestinians are furious about the agreement.

The coalition whip, Likud’s Miki Zohar, told Army Radio on Wednesday that the television news reports the night before about the emerging arms deal, which overshadowed the agreement’s achievements, left Netanyahu fuming.

Never mind, let him fume a little. After all, the media did its job instead of bombarding us with long reports about potential vacations in Dubai and even in Sudan, another Muslim state with which relations might warm up. That vacation scenario is relevant to the lives of very few Israelis, while so many are groaning under the yoke of the coronavirus restrictions and consumed with worries about earning a living.

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