Forty years ago, the Reagan administration sought to sell AWACS early-warning and control aircraft to Saudi Arabia, a close American ally but an unabashed enemy of Israel. Not surprisingly, Israel opposed the deal. Its American supporters unleashed a bitter fight in Congress, led by congressional Democrats who supported Israel, before the administration prevailed.
The Trump administration currently wishes to sell F-35 fighters to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), perhaps America’s closest ally in the Gulf. Israel does not oppose the sale at all; it has begun to normalize its relations with the UAE. But, once again, there may be a fight in Congress, with Democrats again leading opposition to the administration’s proposal.
Democrats never applauded Israel’s breakthrough with the UAE, termed the “Abraham Accords,” or with those that quickly followed with Bahrain and Sudan. In fact they were down-in-the-mouth about one of the Trump administration’s foreign policy achievements. Some, even those who were supporters of the American-Israeli partnership, simply resented the fact that it was President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE who managed to succeed where his predecessors had failed ever since the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement a quarter-century ago.
Others who strongly advocate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were deeply concerned that the Abraham Accords relegated the Palestinian issue to the international back-burner. Still others — those truly hostile to Israel — would have preferred that the Jewish State remain a pariah in the region until either a Palestinian state came into being or Arab Palestinians outnumbered Israeli Jews in a one-party state, thereby terminating Israel’s existence as a Jewish-led polity.
While the Abraham Accords are a fact, the sale of F-35s is not. Preventing the sale offers those hostile to the accords, or to Israel itself, a way to undermine normalization. Ironically, some leading Democratic supporters of Israel are among the sale’s opponents. They worry about jeopardizing Israel’s “qualitative edge,” a principle that is enshrined in law. Congressman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers pay tribute to Colin Powell NYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency Cynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney MORE (D-N.Y.), the outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation to stop the sale, ostensibly because, as he put it, it ignores “potential loss of life.”
Similarly, Sens. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Spending bill faces Senate scramble Republicans raise concerns over Biden's nominee for ambassador to Germany MORE (D-N.J.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Five faces from the media who became political candidates MORE (D-Calif.) have introduced legislation that effectively would block the sale. Menendez argues that “claiming Israel will maintain its edge while offering Abu Dhabi the same number of these sophisticated stealth warplanes as Israel simply does not add up.” That Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE does not appear terribly worried about his country losing its qualitative superiority evidently does not factor into Menendez’s calculus.
Democratic lawmakers also recognize that a significant proportion of their party’s activists loathes the Israeli prime minister. Indeed, as the party has moved leftward, an ever-increasing number of progressives, whose sympathies lie with the Palestinian cause and who are strong believers in what they term “intersectionality,” not only resent the Trump administration’s manifest hostility toward the Palestinians, which they see as but another aspect of Trump’s hated policies, they also fear that Israel’s normalization with Arab states will foreclose the possibility that a Palestinian state ever will come into being.
Opponents of the sale have considerable support among many in academia, as well as elements of the media who long have supported the Palestinian cause. They, too, downplayed the significance of the Abraham Accords, arguing that they only codify trends that have been in the making for decades. While it is true that Israel has maintained informal and often clandestine relations with the UAE and Bahrain for many years — and indeed in the past few years has lobbied the Trump administration to push Sudan to normalize as well — it is equally true that formal normalization has far greater implications for Israel’s long-term security than merely clandestine links. Normalization means that Israel is accepted in the region; its very existence would be much more difficult to challenge. Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and others who wish to destroy the country fully recognize this reality; hence their bitter opposition to any formal agreements with Arab states and their accusations of treachery on the part of those that signed them.
Some advisers to Joe BidenJoe BidenDearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized Pfizer to apply for COVID-19 booster approval for 16- and 17-year-olds: report Coronavirus variant raises fresh concerns for economy MORE reportedly also have questioned the wisdom of proceeding with the F-35 sale. Should he be elected president, however, he and his team would be wise not to reverse it. Doing so might cause the UAE to back out of its agreement with Israel, with the result that the Abraham Accords might unravel entirely. Then Israel once again would be viewed by most governments in the region as an unwelcome pariah. Nothing would make Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas happier.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.