U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington is committed to preserving Israel's military edge in the Middle East.
Pompeo arrived in Israel earlier Monday for a trip that is part of U.S. efforts to enlist additional Muslim countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, in the wake of the normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates.
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After their meeting, the two gave statements to the media. In his comments, Netanyahu said the sale of F-35 fighter jets was not included in Israel's normalization agreement with the UAE, and that he was not aware of such a deal between the United States and the emirates.
The agreement with the UAE did not include approval by Israel for any arms deal, Netanyahu said, adding that such a deal was perhaps being considered but that his opposition to such a deal had not changed. In any case, said the prime minister, Pompeo had made it clear to him that the U.S. was committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
"The United States has a legal requirement with respect to qualitative military edge. We will continue to honor that," Pompeo told reporters. "We provided military assistance to the UAE and we will continue to review that process to make sure we deliver them equipment they need to defend their people from Iran. We will do that in a way that preserves our commitment to Israel as well."
The QME Act gives Israel the right to oppose U.S. arms sales to different countries. This right is based on longstanding agreements based on legislation passed in 2008 and again in 2017. These are understandings that are discussed discreetly behind the scenes and are usually not publicly announced.
The law states that the president must consult with Israeli government officials before approving a weapons deal that could affect Israel’s qualitative edge, but does not require any written approval.
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Pompeo later met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who said after their talk that Israel “Will continue to lead, in tandem with the United States, an uncompromising line toward Iran, which is continuing to develop nuclear weapons and arm militias across the Middle East."
Iran is a danger to the world and to the region and Israel, Gantz said, "and we will act across diplomatic, defense and economic lines, and respond with force and determination so as to safeguard regional stability. We will not allow Iran to achieve nuclear weapons and will act on every front and by every means to prevent that.”
Gantz said Israel "Will work alongside the United States to ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, which is a critical pre-condition both for regional stability and Israel’s security in the face of the challenges inherent to the Middle East.”
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also attended the meeting.
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab is also expected to visit Israel this week, on Tuesday, and meet with his Israeli counterpart Ashkenazi.
Raab said on Monday that the U.K. "remains committed to Israel's security and stability, and the recent normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE was an important moment for the region. Israel's suspension of annexation is an essential step towards a more peaceful Middle East. It is important to build on this new dynamic, and ultimately only the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority can negotiate the two-state solution required to secure lasting peace."
Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladmir Putin on Monday by phone. The leaders discussed the situation in the Middle East, Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Israel's deal with the UAE, Syria and key bilateral topics, said a tweet from the Russian Embassy in Israel.
Pompeo will continue on from Israel to Sudan, where he will meet with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Sovereign Council chairman General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to “express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship,” Ortagus said. Pompeo will also discuss U.S. support for the civilian-led transitional government in Sudan.
Senior Sudanese officials have sent seemingly contradictory messages in recent days concerning the country’s willingness to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel, even though in practice such relations have existed for some time – and have even included an overt meeting between Netanyahu and al-Burhan during Netanyahu’s visit to Uganda early this year.
Pompeo will then travel to Manama to meet with Crown Prince of Bahrain Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Bahrain is the country that both Israel and the United States have set most of their hopes on and Pompeo will discuss with the country’s leaders the agreement with the UAE in an attempt to convince them to join the regional initiative. But experts say that Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to accept the possibility of joining too could very well harm the efforts to recruit Bahrain.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, and Avi Berkowitz, the U.S. special envoy for negotiations in the Middle East, are scheduled to arrive in Israel in early September to discuss these matters, too.
Last week it was reported that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen had met with Sudanese leaders about the possibility of normalizing relations openly. Sudan expects that the United States will remove it from the list of countries that support terrorism – and lift the sanctions that accompany that categorization. Officials in Khartoum expressed hope that this will happen soon, and in the past even said explicitly that this was the goal of the country drawing closer to Israel.
Following the deal between Israel and the UAE on August 13, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Haidar Badawi Sadiq said the country is also looking forward to making a peace deal with Israel. Netanyahu welcomed the statement and said it reflects a brave decision by al-Burhan, the chief of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council.
Shortly afterward, Arab media outlets reported that Sudan’s Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din Ismail walked back the claims, saying that a deal with Israel had not been discussed. The foreign minister said Sadiq was not authorized to remark on Sudan’s relationship with Israel. Sadiq was fired the next day.
Pompeo will conclude his Middle East trip in the UAE, where he will meet with Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi to discuss the normalization agreement with Israel and other regional issues.
Reuters contributed to this report.