There’s a fly in the ointment amid so much optimism and applause for the normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Even as the Jewish world cheered the first direct flight between Ben Gurion Airport and Abu Dhabi, concerns about the price of the switch from under-the-table ties to normal and open diplomatic relations has grown.
As much as Israelis and their supporters abroad have welcomed the symbolism of the flight and the Emirates’ formal end of its adherence to the Arab boycott of Israel (long observed in the breach by the Gulf state), many in the security establishment and elsewhere deplore the plans for the United States to sell to the UAE the F-35 stealth fighter airplane as well as advanced armed drones.
They fear that a regime change event or a shift in regional alliances could put a decisive weapon in the hands of Israel’s armed foes. And even if the UAE doesn’t drift away from its current stance as a friendly nation, its possession of the same military technology as Israel threatens the country’s qualitative military edge over any potential enemy or combination of foes — the maintenance of which is a principle that has been sacred to every Israeli government for the last generation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is desperate to seal the deal with the UAE, and has no wish to thwart the Trump administration on anything. Yet even he has sought to get Trump to pump the brakes on allowing the Emiratis to get the F-35s. With Defense Minister Benny Gantz ready to use the issue to undermine Netanyahu’s reputation as the guardian of Israeli security, should the U.S. go ahead despite Israeli objections, it will put the prime minister in a difficult position.
Israel was the first foreign nation to purchase the F-35. As of July 2019, the Israel Air Force deployed 16 of the advanced jets that have the ability to slip through radar screens. The first operational use of the planes was reportedly in 2018 when the IAF attacked Iranian targets in Syria. Allowing any other armed force in the region to have them undermines Israel’s position as a regional superpower that cannot be challenged by any combination of local foes.
But while that demand to maintain the "QME" is a potent argument, supporters of Israel need to ponder whether their worries justify potentially undermining normalization with the Arab world.
More to the point, they should also consider the outcome of one of the most rancorous debates in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations — the 1981 controversy in which Menachem Begin’s government and AIPAC pulled out all the stops to try to stop the Reagan administration selling AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. Revisiting that debate should put a damper on their alarmism.
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For the last decade, the Gulf states have been steadily moving toward Israel. The reason is twofold.
On the one hand, they have grown tired of the Palestinians exercising a veto over the Arab world’s ability to normalize relations and trade with the Jewish state.
More important than that is Iran, which they fear far more than they ever did Israel. The Emiratis believe the Israelis ought to recognize that anything that strengthens their military deterrent against Iran is good for Israel. They regard Israel’s talk of preserving the QME at their expense to be both short sighted and unfriendly.
Even if the sale were to go through soon, it might be as much as eight years before the UAE could put them into service. Israel would then have a decade’s head start in employing them and perhaps already be ready to move on to a next generation fighter plane that might put the F-35 in the shade.
In response, the Israeli military establishment asks where they would be if the UAE’s committee of princely rulers were overthrown by Islamists or Iranian proxies. That’s the standard argument the pro-Israel community has employed against any and all arms sales to the Arab world and it has validity.
But before the pro-Israel community starts revving the machinery for a fight against the sale, they’d do well to remember the near apocalyptic fears that the sale of AWACS planes generated among American Jews four decades ago. The arguments about the Saudis using the planes to aid future invasions of Israel not only failed to persuade the Senate to turn down the Reagan administration; they also proved unfounded.
At the time, the 1973 Yom Kippur War — in which the Saudis sent 3,000 troops to fight on the Syrian front against Israel — and the Arab oil boycott that followed it, were still recent events. It was easy to make the case that the Saudis’ interest in advanced military equipment was about efforts to destroy Israel rather than to defend themselves, in a region in which the newly installed Islamist regime in Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi dictatorship were potential threats.
But contrary to the doomsday scenarios put forward by AIPAC, the Saudis never used the AWACS planes against Israel. Though it would be many years before their close under-the-table relations with the Jewish state would become a reality, Riyadh was focused on potential foes on the other side of the Gulf. Though history might have turned out differently, the irony was that strengthening the defense posture of a Saudi government that was steeped in hatred for Jews turned out to be no threat to Israel.
As far as the Emiratis and the Trump administration are concerned, that is even more the case for a UAE government that has gone out of its way to demonstrate friendship for the Jewish state and disdain for the Palestinians. Ensuring the Emiratis’ security would seem to help Israel and hurt Iran at least for the foreseeable future.
That said it would make Israelis rest easier if even the friendliest of Arab governments were denied the most sophisticated weapons in the American arsenal.
Once the UAE gets F-35s, it will also be harder to turn down Egypt, the Saudis and any other Arab government that is aligned against Iran, fueling a new arms race that is in no one’s interest. And support for Arab security against Iran cannot mean a U.S. green light to the interests of the Saudis and others in acquiring their own nuclear deterrent.
It’s also true that White House senior advisor/presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s optimism about all 22 Arab states having normal relations with Israel may be a bit over-optimistic. But saying no to the Emiratis about the planes won’t help.
Before Israel and its friends try to go to the mat with Trump and Kushner over selling the F-35s to the UAE — and assuming that the idea isn’t spiked by a Biden administration next year — they should remember that Begin and AIPAC turned out to be wrong about AWACS. As much as the generals aren’t wrong to worry about them, at the moment normalization does more to strengthen Israel than any plane.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and a columnist for the New York Post. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin