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Israel Needs to Get Over Its F-35 Anxiety

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Israeli and U.S. F-35 drill together over the Dead Sea, August 2020
File photo: Israeli and U.S. F-35 drill together over the Dead Sea, August 2020 Credit: Israeli Air Force
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised that America would honor its agreement to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge, he meant that selling F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates wouldn’t undermine this agreement. And when Israel “agrees to allow” Washington to sell the planes, it’s ostensibly confirming Pompeo’s claim.

The problem is that nobody knows how to quantify this military edge or specify verified, measured criteria for defining it. After all, national security isn’t determined by how many planes, tanks and submarines a country has.

The F-35 jets Israel bought can’t protect it against an economic crisis; in fact, they may contribute to it. Nor are they equipped with an immune system that will protect us against the coronavirus. And above all, the presence of the world’s most sophisticated planes in the air force’s hangars can’t protect Israel from a corrupt government, rot in the civil service or a civil war.

These foundation stones, which form the basis of national security in every country, have warped, cracked and crumbled to the point that they have become an existential threat. And compared to that, counting the number of planes Israel owns against the number owned by the UAE or any other country is nothing but an accounting trick dressed up as a defense strategy.

Moreover, even if we isolate these planes from the other fundamental elements of national security and depict them as a game-changing weapon that must remain in Israel’s hands alone rather than being supplied to other Middle Eastern countries, there are still several substantive questions that require answers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks off of the stage following a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, August. 19, 2020Credit: Susan Walsh,AP

First, against whom are these planes slated to be used? It’s true that Israel was the first country to deploy the F-35 on operational flights, but does it need planes that cost around $80 million apiece to down bunches of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip?

Would the attacks on Iranian targets in Syria that are attributed to Israel not be more effective and less dangerous if missiles or drones were used? And above all, if the F-35 gives Israel the ability to attack Iran itself, what was the source of the claim made a decade or more ago that Israel had the ability to attack Iran back then, many years before it had even a single F-35?

But now, these questions are like spilled milk, since Israel has already decided to buy 50 of the planes, and some have already been tried out in operations.

Moreover, these seemingly critical questions relate to the balance of forces between Israel and neighboring countries – a balance Israel strives to preserve, with American backing. So if Israel is worried by the UAE seeking to buy these planes, why didn’t it say a word back when Turkey joined the project to manufacture the planes?

After all, Turkey is an ally of Iran and Russia that’s also fighting against another Israeli ally (Egypt) and never misses an opportunity to condemn Israel. Thus it could be considered a far bigger threat than the UAE.

It’s true that Turkey has since been ousted from the F-35 project and the planes earmarked for it will instead be bought by the U.S. army. Yet Turkey wasn’t thrown out because of Israeli pressure or through use of the agreement to preserve Israel’s military edge, but only because it bought a Russian S-400 radar system. Turkey will continue manufacturing parts for the planes next year as well, even as it negotiates with Russia to purchase and manufacture Sukhoi Su-57 planes.

But above all, even if Israel wanted to object, it couldn’t. Turkey is a member of NATO and is therefore entitled to receive the planes, which are being sold to all members of that organization.

The uproar in Israel over the planes’ sale to the UAE depicts the deal as another concession by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this time over Israel’s qualitative military edge. But Israelis ought to calm down. What our national security requires now are peace agreements with Arab states and the uprooting and cleansing of our government, not a military parade through the skies of the Middle East.

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