Benjamin Netanyahu is a master statesman and political manipulator. Last week, he achieved a diplomatic mega-coup when he leveraged his broken election promises of annexation in the West Bank to extract from the United Arab Emirates a normalization of its ties with Israel.
Being Netanyahu, he insisted on keeping the achievement all for himself, not even informing his political partners-rivals, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, of the impending agreement. He snidely said that he was concerned about leaks, hinting that the two former IDF Generals could accidentally lead the sensitive information into the hands of Iran.
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Netanyahu negotiated the Emirati deal through his two personal plenipotentiaries – Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen and Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer. No one else got a look-in and until Monday, it could have been chalked down to Netanyahu just being Netanyahu – secretive, paranoid, trusting no one outside of his innermost circle. But what began as a career-defining achievement, has now exploded into political scandal after Yedioth Ahronot’s Nahum Barnea, Israel’s most respected columnist, broke the headline story that as a result of the deal with Israel, the UAE will be allowed to purchase from the U.S. F-35 stealth fighter-jets and other advanced weapons systems. Netanyahu categorically denied that the F-35s were part of the deal but Barnea is sticking by his story and other Israeli reporters have heard similar things from anonymous Emirati diplomats.
It’s not entirely clear what Netanyahu is being accused of here. Israel doesn’t get to decide what weapons the U.S. sells and to whom. But Israel is involved when it comes to American arms sales in the Middle East due to the ongoing commitment of successive administrations, supported by Congress for over half a century, to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its potential rivals in the Middle East.
This Israeli advantage, known by the initials QME, is a subjective and often elusive concept, that has changed and evolved over the years and is determined at any given time through an ongoing and quiet discourse between the Israeli government and security establishment on one side and the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, Congress and the American defense industry on the other.
Every sale of American arms to an Arab nation, no matter how pro-Western and even non-hostile towards Israel, is a potential threat to the QME. At times, arguments between Jerusalem and Washington have become public, with the most blatant example being the clash between Menachem Begin and Ronald Reagan in 1981 over the sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. But usually, agreements are reached discreetly to the satisfaction of all parties. For example, over the last few decades, the Saudis bought F-15s and Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the Emiratis received F-16s, but only years after Israel was already operating these war machines.
Ultimately the QME is maintained not by blocking sales to Arab countries, but through different timetables, the supply (or non-supply) of certain sub-systems and added capabilities, Israel’s greater capacity for optimizing and upgrading the American weapons it uses and its much higher level of training, cooperation and intelligence-sharing.
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The UAE has been asking to purchase the F-35 for years and has so far been rebuffed. During this time, Israel received its first F-35s at the end of 2016, has already used them in combat and is now building up a second operational squadron. Ultimately the UAE, and perhaps other Arab air-forces, will also get F-35s, but Israel will have an advantage of at least a decade in bringing the aircraft to operational experience and maturity, upgrading it with Israeli systems and building new squadrons of more advanced models. That’s how a qualitative military edge is preserved.
It’s entirely plausible that as a result of the recent diplomatic deal with Israel, the UAE has managed to move this timetable a couple of years forward and will be getting the F-35s, and other systems, earlier than Israel would have liked. There’s no need for any of this to have been included in the agreement with Israel in order for such a sale to take place. And since the UAE is Israel (and America’s) tacit ally against the joint enemy of Iran, there’s a strong argument in favor of compromising the QME a bit for a groundbreaking diplomatic agreement. Netanyahu could have brought all of this to cabinet and easily won the argument. Instead, he chose evasion and lies.
In tennis terms, Netanyahu has made an unforced error. He could have updated Gantz and Ashkenazi at an earlier date about the impending deal, and could have also invited Israel’s senior defense officials and diplomats, who have spent years working with their American counterparts on the QME, to take part in the talks. Acting in such a manner would have caused no harm to the deal with the UAE, and it would have provided Netanyahu with strong answers to the kind of disturbing questions now being raised as a result of the F-35 debate.
But Netanyahu’s suspicious nature and his need to claim all the credit for any achievements to himself, while keeping his senior cabinet ministers in the dark, has transformed a diplomatic coup into a damaging political scandal. And sticking with idioms from the white sport, in his case it’s a double-fault.
The attorney-general originally said Netanyahu is not a suspect in Case 3000 – the kickbacks received by various senior officials in the sale of German submarines to the Israeli Navy. But question-marks linger over the fact that the suspects were some of Netanyahu’s closest confidants and that there were ties between the German shipyard and a company owned by Netanyahu’s cousin, in which Netanyahu himself owned shares for a short while before he sold them at a profit of 3.7 million dollars. In addition, there have been claims by some of Israel’s most senior defense officials over the past decade that Netanyahu gave the Germans a greet light to sell similar submarines to Egypt, without informing anyone in the security establishment.
Unlike the U.S., Germany is not officially committed to the QME, but for obvious historic reasons, Angela Merkel’s government was anxious for Israel’s opinion before selling a strategic weapons systems to an Arab neighbor. Egypt under the leadership of its strongman president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is seen in Jerusalem as a close ally, and it’s entirely plausible that Netanyahu could have convinced his security cabinet at the time, that it is justified to give the Germans a thumbs-up for the Egyptian deal. But in that case, just like in so many other instances, Netanyahu chose to make the decision on his own, thus strengthening the whiff of corruption around his involvement in the entire submarine affair.
For a moment in 2017, before the Attorney General said he was not a suspect in this affair, it looked like the submarine scandal could sink Netanyahu. But eventually, he survived it without any significant political damage, perhaps due to the low-profile nature of Israel’s underwater force and the complexity of the alleged details.
A deal to sell advanced jets to an Arab air-force, on the other hand, is much easier for the public to visualize, and makes for much more colorful tabloid headline fodder. Israelis have long fetishized the country’s combat pilots and their shiny steads. Generations of IAF commanders, going back to the 1960’s, have drummed into Israeli consciousness that the country must have the best and newest fighter-jets before any other air force in the region. The Mirage 3, the F-4 Phantom, the F-15 Eagle and most recently the F-35 Lightning, all landed in Israel with great fanfare, photo-opportunities with the prime minister and gushing features in the media on the select few chosen to fly it. For those reasons and others, a fighter jets scandal can reach much higher altitudes in the Israeli political discourse than a complicated affair involving submarines.
Netanyahu’s unforced error in this case is a direct result of his increasingly autocratic tendencies and refusal to accept that in Israel’s parliamentary system, the prime minister is not an all-powerful president but just the first among equals in his cabinet, which rules at the Knesset’s pleasure. Signing a complex diplomatic deal with profound implications without consulting the cabinet is very reminiscent of the way Netanyahu has gone about dealing with the Coronavirus crisis, trying to handle a pandemic with just a tiny group of flunkies and cronies; taking credit when it seemed that Israel had dealt well with the first wave, and then denying responsibility once the second wave came crashing down.
The F-35-to-UAE scandal won’t bring Netanyahu down (though his mishandling of COVID-19 might). But it has taken the shine off what should have been an unalloyed success story and is further proof that Netanyahu’s hubris has become his worst enemy, much more dangerous than any of his so-called rivals.