U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that he had authorized the sale of 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates as part of a broader arms deal worth nearly a quarter billion dollars aimed at deterring potential threats from Iran despite concern in Israel.
Pompeo said he had formally notified Congress about the sale, which is in keeping with the Trump administration’s Middle East peace efforts. The notification to lawmakers follows the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, under which the Arab states have agreed to normalize relations with Israel.
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“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement.
In addition, Pompeo said he would leave on Friday for France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The tour, according to the secretary, will focus on “this administration’s historic efforts to forge peace and cooperation throughout the Middle East.”
Israeli officials have previously expressed some concern about an F-35 sale because it could affect the balance of military power in the region. But Pompeo said it would be “fully consistent” with the longstanding policy of maintaining Israel’s qualitive military advantage.
The sale, worth up to $23.37 billion, includes 50 F-35s, 18 advanced armed drone systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.
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“The UAE’s historic agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape,” Pompeo said. “Our adversaries, especially those in Iran, know this and will stop at nothing to disrupt this shared success.”
After agreeing to normalize relations with Israel in August, Emirati officials had said purchasing the F-35s was among their main goals. At the time Israeli officials denied they had agreed to the sale but later dropped public objections to it.
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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in October 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.”
Also in October, 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.”
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.
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.