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Behind Gulf Normalization With Israel: Lucrative U.S. Arms Deals

Deals with UAE and Bahrain in the Gulf and with Kosovo and Serbia in the Balkans are a part of Trump’s arms marketing drive

Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
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Trump with the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo.
Trump with the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo.Credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit

“We’re seeing a … resurgence of the F-16 business,” Lockheed Martin Executive Vice President of Aeronautics Michele Evans said in an interview with Air Force Magazine last week. “We’re up to about 4,600 aircraft delivered and can see possibly getting up to 5,000.”

Evans’ comments are interesting because these days her company is manufacturing some 70 F-16s for Slovakia, Bulgaria and Bahrain, the latter of which is due to sign a peace agreement with Israel on Tuesday.

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The sale of the jets, which carry a price tag of $50 million each, could provide an opening for bigger business, namely the sale of F-35 stealth fighters, each of which costs $80 million. “For a lot of these countries, … as we get them capable with the F-16, we believe the next step for many … is future procurement of the F-35,” Evans said. Selling as many of the jets is important due to the huge development costs that went into them.

The agreements being signed at the White House on Tuesday are welcome and expected to contribute to the Israeli economy. At the same time, we have to consider the interest of the U.S. arms industry in the normalization. Did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consent to the F-35 sales, as reported in the Israeli and U.S. media, or not, as he maintains?

Either way, the pact with Bahrain as well as Serbia’s and Kosovo’s agreement to move their embassies to Jerusalem, raises the question of whether it’s a pawn in U.S. President Donald Trump’s global drive to boost American arms sales.

At the end of July, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said his country wanted to strengthen its armed forces by buying fighter jets. “We, as a militarily neutral country, want to preserve our military neutrality, which means that we look after our sky alone, to look after our country alone,” Vucic said in what was widely seen as a signal to Washington.

Meanwhile, pro-government media reported that Serbia had officially asked the U.S. for 20 fighter-bombers, but Washington had not responded to the request. It speculated that if the U.S. refused, Serbia was likely to purchase Sukhoi-25 attack aircraft from Russia. The Serbian defense minister said his country also wanted to buy Boeing T-7A Red Hawk jet trainers, which can also be used for combat missions, at a cost of $50 million apiece.

The announcement by Netanyahu’s office that the Serbian embassy move and the opening of a Kosovo embassy in Jerusalem (as well as the establishment of diplomatic relations) was made relatively quietly on September 4, just before the start of Shabbat. Compare that to the celebration in 2018 that accompanied news that Guatemala was moving its embassy to Jerusalem. That might be due to the fact that normalization with the Gulf stole all the attention or it might be that Serbia and Kosovo are a source of conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

Last Friday, just two days before they were scheduled to begin, Serbia suspended its participation in war games that had been planned with Russia and Belarus a long time ago. The embassy move is unlikely to have been welcomed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

In the economic normalization agreement between Serbia and Kosovo signed at the White House last Friday, it’s clear what everyone is getting, except for Israel. Trump is being mentioned for a Nobel Peace Prize and the U.S. secures a role in the Balkans while Serbia and Kosovo will enjoy economic benefits. What Israel gets is the symbolism of two new embassies in Jerusalem, which was an appendage to the main deal on normalization.

What Israel may pay for that symbolism, by choosing to engage itself in the U.S. diplomatic maneuverings in the Balkans, may have economic consequences in its relations with Russia.

Like the agreements between Israel and the Gulf, the agreement Washington brokered with Serbia and Kosovo is the product of American interests in the Balkans, including the interests of the U.S. defense sector.

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