The White House notified Congress it intends to sell 50 Lockheed Martin made F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates, sources said Thursday.
The deal could still be blocked if committees in the House of Representatives and Senate choose to do so. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees, whose members have criticized the UAE's role in civilian deaths in Yemen, have the right to review, and block, weapons sales under an informal review process.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who referred to the sale in a press conference Thursday, said that there had been an ongoing discussion between Defense Ministry officials and the Pentagon over the past month and that Israel had received strong assurances about "the American commitment to preserve Israel’s military qualitative edge.”
Earlier Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited Israel for several hours and met with senior officials, including Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, among others.
Netanyahu said that he had thanked Esper for Washington's "exceptional cooperation. I think that is a very important achievement for the State of Israel. We also know that we all stand before a common threat, and we understand that well."
However, he added, it was important to “get this clear American commitment to maintain our military qualitative edge in the region and in general.”
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Benny Gantz also said the discussions with Esper had focused on "preserving the security of Israel for decades to come, and to strengthen it."
“As Defense Minister I can assure you tonight that the United States continues to be committed to Israel’s security and the preservation of its qualitative military edge in the Middle East," he said on Twitter on Thursday night.
The sale of the jet has been controversial in Israel, which originally had exclusive use of the F-35 in the Middle East, as part of its deal with Washington that to maintain its military edge in the region.
Despite repeated denials, sources told media in Israel and the United States that Netanyahu had agreed to the sale during negotiations that led to the Abraham Accords, the normalization with the UAE and Bahrain, signed in August.
On October 23, Netanyahu, facing an unprecedented wave of popular unrest over the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis and his own corruption cases, said that the sale had been agreed to, but that it was not part of the deal.
Instead, he passed the hot potato to his rival and uneasy coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz. But in a statement of his own, the Kahol Lavan leader claimed that negotiations were known to some Israeli officials, but were kept hidden from him and Israel's security establishment.
The same day, Netanyahu and Gantz also released a joint statement saying they had agreed not to oppose the sale of the F-35s to the UAE in light of a promise by Washington to upgrade Israel's military edge in the Middle East.