What happened: Defence Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz was in Washington yesterday and met with senior US officials amid growing speculation of the US sale of F-35 striker jets to the UAE.
- Gantz met senior advisor to the president, Jared Kushner, in the White House and expressed his gratitude for the ”exceptional efforts and achievements on the part of Kushner and the US government at large in advancing peace and stability in the Middle East, which culminated in the Abraham Accords.” They also discussed potential additional agreements with other countries in the region.
- He also met with US Secretary of Defence Mark Asper and other senior Pentagon officials to discuss maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), defence cooperation and procurement. They also discussed their shared concerns over Iran and a strategy for stopping its expansion and entrenchment.
- Secretary Asper stressed that Israel is America’s most important strategic partner in the Middle East. Asper said the bonds of friendship among the peoples of Israel and the US are “unbreakable”. He added: “I do want to say upfront for everyone, that a cornerstone of our defence relationship is preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. The United States is committed to that, and the Department of Defence is committed to that imperative.”
- Gantz also met US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. Gantz told him, “We will persist in our uncompromising efforts to halt Iranian aggression and will enlist other countries in the efforts as well.” Gantz reiterated Israel’s support for US policy of applying pressure on Iran in the international arena. He briefed O’Brien on ongoing Iranian aggression and told him that Israel will continue to respond to Iranian entrenchment in Syria and elsewhere.
Context: Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973 the US sought to maintain Israel’s QME and in 2008 US Congress codified this policy into law and approves arms sales to the region accordingly.
- Israel was the first foreign country to receive the F-35 striker jet. As of July 2019, the Israel Air Force deployed 16 of the advanced jets that have state of the art stealth ability, undetectable to radar.
- Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington without any of his political partners to sign the Abraham Accords with UAE and Bahrain, despite the agreements being signed at the level of foreign minister. The reception Gantz received appears to show the US understands and respects the dynamic of Israel’s coalition government.
- Netanyahu has faced criticism from the security establishment for not consulting with Gantz or IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi before giving tacit consent for the US to supply F-35s to the UAE. A claim Netanyahu has denied.
- Away from the domestic political arena where Gantz has struggled, defence cooperation with the US is in his comfort zone. Throughout his military career he has had a strong US connection. As a company commander in the Paratroopers Brigade, he trained with the US Special Forces. As a colonel, he studied at the US National Defence University. As a Maj. Gen. Gantz also served as Israel’s military attaché in Washington.
- Gantz had already spoken to Esper by phone to discuss the UAE procurement of F-35s but felt it important enough to travel and request compensation in person. According to Israel media, the Israeli shopping list includes another F-35 squadron, F-15X fighter jets, KC-46 refuelers, Chinooks and V-22 Ospreys. For the requests already in the pipeline, Israel is expected to ask for early delivery. Gantz may have also asked for additional long-range weaponry and radar systems.
- One option being explored is to make the UAE’s F-35 more visible to Israeli radar systems, either by changing the jet or providing Israel with better radar technology.
- Beyond the danger of the UAE obtaining F-35s, Israel is concerned of the precedent it sets ahead of other Arab states normalising relations.
Looking ahead: As Gantz arrived in Washington, Reuters reported that the US and the UAE plan to have an agreement on the sale of F-35s in place by 2 December, coinciding with UAE’s Independence Day. According to The Jerusalem Post, “the UAE will also get Reaper drones and EA-18G Growlers, which are advanced electronic-warfare planes that can jam enemy air defences and are flown only by the US and Australia”.
- If agree, the sale will take years before the fighter jets are deployed by the UAE. Poland most recently bought 32 F-35s in January but will not receive its first delivery until 2024.