Air force chief: UAE F-35 sale could be ‘less optimal’ for Israel in long term

The proposed United States sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates could have a long-term negative strategic impact for Israel, Air Force Chief Amikam Norkin said in an interview aired Wednesday.

Though not formally a part of a recently signed US-brokered normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE, the sale of the F-35s is widely seen as having been contingent upon Abu Dhabi’s acceptance of the deal with Jerusalem.

Norkin told Channel 12 that although a possible sale would not necessarily have an immediate negative impact for Israel, in the long term it could upset the balance in the region in a way that may not be positive for Israel.

“These things are not reflected in the strategic analysis as endangering Israel next week. These are things that could produce processes that may, in the long-term strategic balance, be less optimal for the State of Israel,” he said.

In this August 5, 2019, photo released by the US Air Force, an F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. (Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/US Air Force via AP)

“The fear stems from further steps that will be taken after the first step, and then perhaps the spread, which will be broader,” Norkin said. “The fear is also strategic changes that could occur in the region, that what today seems possible, in ten years will suddenly seem less true.”

“Ultimately the chief of staff sums up the army’s position. These things are discussed in an orderly process, it is not a whim of this or that. And we would very much like to preserve our advantage over the years in the region,” Norkin said.

Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly denied giving his approval for the F-35 sale, he appears to have at least been made aware of it in advance and not informed the Defense Ministry and military that the sale — until then regarded as indefinitely on hold — appeared to be going through.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House after they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords, where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Asked if the move could happen despite the prime minister’s opposition, Norkin said he did not know, but that Israel had influenced the US in the past on the matter of maintaining its military superiority in the region.

Under a 2008 law and a decades-older policy, the United States is prohibited from making arms sales to countries in the Middle East if the Pentagon determines that doing so would damage Israel’s so-called “Qualitative Military Edge.”

In some cases, weapons sales that would have threatened Israel’s QME were eventually allowed to go through provided the United States offset the potential harm by limiting the way the equipment could be used by the other country or by selling yet more powerful military technology to Israel. For example, under US president Barack Obama, F-16 fighter jets were sold to Saudi Arabia under the condition that they could not be based within immediate range of Israel.

According to a Reuters report Tuesday, the US is hoping to ink a deal to sell the stealth fighters to the UAE by December, but is also looking for ways to assuage Israel’s concerns that its security could be jeopardized by the sale of the advanced jets.

The report claimed one measure under review was supplying Israel with technology to identify the Emirati jets, so the stealth craft cannot evade its radars.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Wednesday said it would likely take six to seven years before the UAE receives the F-35 stealth fighter jet.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The Emiratis have been trying to get the F-35 for six or seven years. The delivery time is probably another six or seven years from now, if they got [approval to purchase the aircraft],” Friedman said in an interview during a Jerusalem Post newspaper conference.

The US ambassador seemed to criticize Israeli officials who initially spoke out against or expressed hesitations about the proposed sale of the fifth-generation aircraft, a linchpin in Israel’s aerial superiority strategy. Though he was not explicitly named, this appeared to include Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who said last month that the proliferation of the advanced stealth fighter jet through the region was “not good for Israel.”

“It’s not in Israel’s interest to discuss what they’re afraid of or what they want or what they should get,” Friedman said.

On Tuesday, Gantz — who was kept out of the loop about the UAE normalization deal and the F-35 sale — met with his American counterpart Mark Esper and other defense officials to discuss ways of maintaining Israel’s advantage in the region.

“The professionals are engaged right now. Let them engage, let them continue to engage, and we’ll get to the right outcome,” Friedman said.

Gantz met with Esper and other senior US officials during his visit to Washington on Tuesday, a week after Israel normalized relations with the UAE and Bahrain at a White House ceremony. Gantz did not travel to the US for the signing of the accords.

US Defense Chief Mark Esper, left, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, meeting at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on September 22, 2020. (Jim Garamone/ Department of Defense)

“The defense relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger: We intend to keep it that way,” Esper told Gantz, according to the Pentagon.

He added that “a cornerstone of our defense relationship is preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.”

Gantz and Esper “discussed the importance of ensuring Israel’s military edge and the avenues to maintain it and reviewed additional regional opportunities and potential defense collaborations,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The defense minister also discussed the sale of the planes with senior US presidential adviser Jared Kushner, a key architect of the normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain.

Gantz and Kushner discussed “furthering additional accords as an instrument for ensuring regional stability and protecting Israel’s security, while maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge throughout the process,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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