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Can Israel Depend on Authoritarian Gulf Regimes for Its Security? Congress and Trump Must Decide

Evan Gottesman
Evan Gottesman
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President Trump gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, on Tuesday, February 5, 2019.
President Trump gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, on Tuesday, February 5, 2019.Credit: Doug Mills,AP
Evan Gottesman
Evan Gottesman

Behind the fanfare surrounding the historic visit of Israeli and American delegations to the United Arab Emirates earlier this week, there are still challenges ahead for Israel-UAE normalization. 

Even though the opening of formal ties between Israel and Abu Dhabi was ostensibly predicated on Israel giving up on West Bank annexation, the most sensitive issue to emerge from the agreement is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The UAE has been content to merely see West Bank annexation "suspended," while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a point from the get-go of reminding everyone that annexation remains on the table, and that anyone who says otherwise, including his own foreign minister, is not in the know. 

Instead, the first bump in the road to UAE-Israel normalization is the potential sale of American F-35 stealth fighter jets to Abu Dhabi. 

The F-35 is the most sophisticated American stealth fighter aircraft available for export. Israel is currently the only operator of the F-35 in the Middle East — Turkey was booted from the F-35 program after it purchased the Russian S-400 air defense system.

Prime Minister Netanyahu visits the Israel Air Force’s F-35 squadron, December 23, 2019.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Laam

Concerned Israeli officials want to preserve their regional monopoly on the plane. A trilateral meeting between Israeli, Emirati, and American officials at the United Nations has already become the first casualty of mixed messaging between Israel and the UAE over the F-35.

Much attention has already been paid to Israel’s internal deliberations about the F-35 sale. This week saw confirmation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Emiratis and Americans behind closed doors that he would accept a weapons deal, only to take the opposite tack in public.

After meeting with Jared Kushner last weekend, Defense Minister Benny Gantz made remarks that seemed to signal a possible softening of the Israeli position, although Gantz has been waffling on the issue since Israel-UAE normalization was announced. Kushner said he expects Netanyahu and Trump will discuss the issue one-on-one

Through all of this, Netanyahu remains steadfast in his public denials about giving any leeway. The recent and credible reports about Netanyahu’s conflicting positions have only led him to double down on his public opposition. This question will be difficult to neatly resolve given Bibi’s personalized diplomacy completely excluded even Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi from talks with the UAE. 

But the ultimate decision on the F-35 transfer falls to the United States. And on that count, it’s worth asking what sorts of expectations the Trump administration set for the UAE about how the sale would go down in Washington.

The White House seems keen to let the Emiratis purchase the F-35. However, if the Trump administration knew that Netanyahu would say one thing to the Emiratis in negotiations, and another in public, as the latest reports suggest, then they should be aware that the prime minister’s public opposition to the UAE getting to the jets will only exacerbate the sale’s controversy on Capitol Hill. Opponents of the sale in Jerusalem and in Washington alike will argue that it undermines Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME).

Trump welcomes Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, to the White House in Washington, May 15, 2017.Credit: AL DRAGO / NYT

The QME is a cornerstone of the U.S.-Israel security relationship. Although a general understanding existed for several decades, an explicit definition is now enshrined in American law. 

According to the 2008 Naval Vessel Transfer Act, the QME refers to "superior military means, possessed in sufficient quantity, including weapons, command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that in their technical characteristics are superior in capability to those of such other individual or possible coalition of states or non-state actors." 

In less technical terms, this means that the equipment that the Israeli military fields must be a cut above the rest. 

Under the 2008 law and subsequent 2012 legislation, the White House must evaluate the impact of arms transfers to other Middle Eastern countries on the balance of power vis-a-vis Israel and its neighbors, and produce a quadrennial report on the status of Israel’s QME.

The rationale for the QME could be a bone of contention when it comes to Israel and its Arab state strategic partners. The United States rewarded the governments of Egypt and Jordan for making peace with Israel with massive military aid and arms sales. Today, Cairo and Amman are respectively the second and fourth largest recipients of U.S. foreign military financing. 

By contrast, America’s Gulf Arab allies like the UAE tend to buy U.S.-made arms out-of-pocket rather than depend on aid. Nevertheless, Abu Dhabi likely hoped to reap some kind of military benefit from striking a deal with Israel, and access to a wider catalog of weapons was certainly a part of the equation

The Emiratis were probing U.S. interest in selling them the F-35 years before normalization with Israel was even on the table. The reported package could go beyond just the stealth fighters to include EA-18G Growler, an advanced upgrade of the F/A-18 Hornet geared toward electronic warfare that is currently only in use by the United States and Australia.

Israeli and U.S. objections to a sale based on the principle of QME may puzzle countries like the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt, and, for that matter, states with de facto peaceful ties with Israel like Saudi Arabia. 

These governments are all American allies and have no intention of flying into battle against the Israeli Air Force when they face a common enemy in Iran. Moreover, an Israeli F-35 is qualitatively not the same as a prospective Emirati one. While both aircraft would be procured from the same source, Israel routinely upgrades the avionics and other aspects of foreign-built military aircraft, something other countries using American hardware are forbidden from doing by U.S. law. 

Israeli and U.S. F-35 drill together over the Dead Sea, August 2020Credit: Israeli Air Force

Many Israelis see things differently, however. For every Egypt, whose treaty with Israel survived the overthrow of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, the democratic election of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi, and the installation of a military regime under Abdel Fattah al Sisi, all in the span of half a decade, there is an Iran or a Turkey, once reliable allies turned bitter enemies.

The unwritten understanding here is that Israel’s neighbors are authoritarian governments whose policies are frequently out of step with the beliefs of their polities. 

Also, while Israel-UAE cooperation goes beyond security and promises to expand as normalization advances, the root of the relationship is a tactical alignment against a hostile Iran. If the leadership in Tehran or Abu Dhabi (or both) ever changes, the dynamics would be completely different.

This is not a comfortable conversation to have. Essentially, Israel and the United States are hedging on strongmen in the Middle East and they are broadcasting to those very strongmen that they view their governments as potentially temporary affairs. The issue is not that Israelis don’t not trust Mohammad bin Zayed; it is that they do not know who comes next after him.

If Israel raises a QME-related concern to Congress, then President Trump is likely to face resistance in his efforts to sell the F-35 to the Emiratis. 

Beyond Israel-related issues, the UAE may encounter mistrust from many policymakers in Washington over its participation in Saudi Arabia’s destructive and unpopular military campaign in Yemen. Just last summer, the Senate made an abortive attempt to stop Washington from selling guided bombs to the UAE. The UAE withdrew its troops from Yemen in 2019 (although it remains involved in other ways, including supporting local militant groups in operating secret torture centers), and its push for normalization with Israel is driven in part by hopes that doing so would allow Abu Dhabi to recoup some goodwill on Capitol Hill. Whether it can actually rehabilitate its image in the long run remains to be seen.

Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, Jared Kushner and UAE's National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan hold a meeting in Abu Dhabi, August 31, 2020. Credit: Handout ./ REUTERS

The U.S. president does have the right to initiate government-to-government weapons sales on their own. Under the 1973 Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the president is required to notify Congress of a transfer 30 days in advance of its completion, or, in the case of Israel, NATO members, and a handful of other close non-NATO partners, only 15 days.

Congress can challenge a sale via House and Senate resolutions expressing disapproval. But the threshold to actually stop a weapons transfer from going forward is quite high. As with all legislation, the president can veto Congressional objections and protect their position from an override by rallying the support of just one third plus one members of each chamber. While informal pressure may put an arms deal on ice, Congress has never been able to push a resolution of disapproval over weapons transfers past a presidential veto. 

On top of this, the Trump administration has shown a particular proclivity for working around Congress on arms deals with Gulf countries. The president vetoed resolutions of disapproval on transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2019, invoking a "national security emergency" under the AECA that sidesteps the legislative review process altogether, and Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have shown interest in leaving Congress out of such decisions permanently.

American legislators will have to decipher mixed signals from the Israeli defense establishment while determining how Netanyahu’s external messaging squares with their QME obligations. This, despite insurmountable evidence that the prime minister’s public positions do not reflect his private commitments. 

If members of Congress do raise concerns about the F-35 sale to the UAE, QME-related or otherwise, they will be fighting an uphill battle largely dependent upon President Trump’s willingness to budge on the issue, and on who wins the presidential election in November. After all, the actual transfer would not happen overnight — equipping and training pilots could take years — so a different administration might even have an opportunity to cancel it. 

Regardless of what happens, policymakers and organizations who both praise Israel-UAE normalization and object to the Emiratis buying F-35s will be placed in an awkward position when they discover that the latter was a primary reason for the former taking place to begin with. 

Evan Gottesman is the Associate Director of Policy and Communications at Israel Policy Forum. Twitter: @EvanGottesman