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Could the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE endanger Israel?

After the euphoria of the announcement that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would normalize relations with Israel and open an embassy there, some who have read the fine print of what the deal actually may entail have become a little uneasy about some aspects. 

Both the Democratic and Republican parties say that it is an American security priority to support Israel, our ally, and to make sure that Israel keeps its qualitative edge in military hardware and weapons over its enemies. 

Israel certainly cannot have quantitative superiority in weapons because of the size of its neighbors, but has been able to level the playing field for generations by having a qualitative edge. Now there is some potential buyer’s remorse with the very real possibility that the price for normalization with the UAE — only the third Arab country willing to make peace with Israel — could threaten the qualitative advantage upon which it relies.

The original assumption was that the “quid pro quo” for diplomatic relations was Israel’s willingness not to extend sovereignty into the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) in exchange for normalization. It now appears something much more important may be in play — that America’s prize F-35 stealth fighter jet could end up in the hands of a potential future enemy. For the record, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denies the F-35 was part of a secret understanding, but President Trump has said it is under consideration.  

Some will correctly claim that America has sold seemingly equivalent advanced aircraft and weaponry to Israel’s enemies, but in reality they were never as advanced as the ones Israel had purchased or improved on its own. However, the F- 35 has something that is unique, even in a less advanced model: stealth capabilities that could shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Israel would have much to be concerned about, unless the United States shares some fail-safe method of detecting these aircraft, and that’s not likely.

A similar scenario occurred in 1981 when President Reagan sold five AWAC airborne warning and control system planes to Saudi Arabia, along with fuel tanks for 62 F-15 Eagle fighters that significantly improved the Saudis’ offensive capabilities and put Israel in a difficult defensive position. At the time, a majority in Congress opposed the deal, and it can be expected that Congress — whether Democrat- or Republican-led — would frown on a deal today, especially if the Saudis ask for the same access to F-35s that the UAE would receive. 

Until Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 anti-missile system last year, they not only would have possessed a significant fleet of F-35s but also were a key part of the production chain. A case can be made that Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is a much more dangerous enemy to Israel and regional stability than the UAE (or, for that matter, other Gulf states). 

Even if the UAE can be trusted with an advanced fleet of F 35s, this could set a precedent for other Arab and Muslim countries to be able to purchase the aircraft. Today’s friends can become tomorrow’s enemies in the volatile Middle East. 

Would Israel be endangered if Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia had their own F-35s?

Egypt is the most populous Arab Muslim nation. Its people are profoundly fundamentalist, as evidenced by their voting in a fair and free election just a few years ago for then-President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, the most important Sunni Islamist entity in the Middle East. Can you imagine F-35s in the hands of an Egyptian president like Morsi? This is a real possibility, because current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi remains in power only by authoritarian rule.

Jordan, too, is a fragile nation with an artificially implanted Hashemite monarch who controls the Palestinian majority population. It is not inconceivable that Jordan’s monarchy could fall to the Palestinian majority in the next decade, and it must be remembered that their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza elected Hamas in a fair and free election. Would we want a Hamas-controlled Jordanian government to have F 35s? This risk is not just for Israel, but for American security interests.

Saudi Arabia is in the doghouse with Congress because of the killing of journalist Jamal  Khashoggi and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war. For that reason, Saudi Arabia would not receive congressional support at this time for F-35s in exchange for recognizing Israel and normalizing relations. Beyond that, the House of Saud is vulnerable to radical Sunni jihadists; its Wahabi religious orientation laid the seeds for the emergence of al Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi Arabia’s northwest boundary is just a short distance from Israel’s southern border near Eilat, making it particularly dangerous. 

Normalization with the UAE is too important for Israel to endanger, especially if it greases the wheels for other nations such as Morocco, Bahrain, Sudan, Oman and the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel in the near future. But can Israel swallow a potential F-35 suicide pill for the sake of relations with its Sunni neighbors, who could just as easily tear up the agreement? 

If President Trump wins a second term, it is likely that he will seriously consider selling stealth aircraft to the UAE, and possibly other nations. What Joe Biden would do as president is unknown, but in the name of regional stability, he might follow the same path as Trump in this regard.

Just as there is no free lunch for anything of value, the sale of F-35s to Israel’s neighbors and potential enemies is a serious concern, and it is up to the Israelis to convince whoever sits in the Oval Office that a real solution is needed to protect Israel’s qualitative edge, which is also an indispensable American national security interest.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate and House and their foreign policy advisers. He is the senior editor for security at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Arab-Israeli peace Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump F-35 fighter jet Israel-UAE peace agreement Joe Biden Middle East

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