The United States is eyeing the sale of stealthy F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates in a side agreement to the UAE's overtures to Israel, an industry insider who was part of the dialogue with government officials said on Wednesday.
A sale, which could reduce Israel's military advantage in the Middle East, would come after Israel and the UAE said last week they would normalize diplomatic ties and forge a broad new relationship under an accord that U.S. President Donald Trump helped broker.
PODCAST: Inside Israel's no-change, no-cost peace deal with the UAE
At a news conference on Wednesday, Trump said the UAE was interested in buying F-35 fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin Corp, which Israel has used in combat.
"They'd like to buy F-35's, we'll see what happens, it's under review."
In recent week, U.S. officials have briefed the UAE military on the F-35 fighter jets, despite some National Security Council staffers expressing concern about exposing confidential information to the monarchy before a decision about the weapons sale had been reached, the New York Times reported.
According to the Times, U.S. officials reject the claim that promoting the sale of the advanced weapons is a reward for the UAE's part in the diplomatic breakthrough with Israel, which in exchange agreed to suspend annexation of parts of the West Bank.
However, the officials admit that the new push on the arms sale has to do with a wider diplomatic initiative.
- Despite Netanyahu's claims, sale of F-35s to UAE is still on the U.S. agenda
- Netanyahu: I opposed F-35 sale to UAE; deal doesn't include it
- Israel still opposes F-35 sale to UAE, despite normalization deal, senior officials say
For years, the United States has denied requests by the UAE to buy the advanced weapons, in part due to Israeli pressure against such a move.
The sale would shake up the military balance in the Middle East and will probably face harsh opposition from Israel.
The Israeli army, which purchased the F-35 jets from the U.S., has said selling it to the UAE could undermine its qualitative edge in the region.
Without Israel's support, it is unlikely Congress would support the sale.
A White House spokesman, as well as Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, has made no mention of any arms deal in his many comments on the diplomatic agreement with Israel.
“The F-35 has been the single-biggest defense system objective the Emiratis have had for years,” said Barbara A. Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the UAE.
Earlier on Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to Israel said in a Jerusalem Post interview that the United States would ensure Israel maintains its regional military edge if U.S. F-35 warplanes are ever sold to the UAE.
The Jerusalem Post quoted envoy David Friedman as saying that while it was hypothetically possible the UAE would one day receive permission to buy F-35s, their manufacture and procurement "would take many years".
Friedman said that as the UAE seeks more advanced weaponry "the QME process will kick in as it has before", according to the newspaper.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the agreement to normalize relations with the UAE does not include an Israeli agreement for weapons sales between Abu Dhabi and Washington.
“The peace agreement with the UAE does not include any clauses on the matter, and the United States clarified to Israel that it will always safeguard Israel’s qualitative edge.”
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu “has opposed the sale of F-35 jets and other advanced weapons of any sort in the Middle East, including Arab states that make peace with the State of Israel.” He added that he has expressed this position in past months to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Israeli officials involved in the progressing relations between Israel and the UAE told Haaretz on Monday that Israel did not change its longstanding opposition to selling F-35 jets and other advanced weapons to the Gulf state, despite the accord.
Reuters contributed to this report.