Trump Weighs F-35 Sales to UAE Over Israeli Objections

WASHINGTON (AP) -
F-35
An Israeli F-35 fighter jet. (Liz Kaszynski/Flash 90)

President Donald Trump said Wednesday the U.S. is considering selling advanced American F-35 warplanes to the United Arab Emirates over the objections of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Trump told reporters at a White House news conference that the Emiratis had expressed interest in buying “quite a few” of the stealth fighter jets. He said such a sale was “under review” given the new dynamic between Israel and the UAE since the two nations agreed to normalize relations last week. Perhaps just as important, Trump said, is that the UAE can afford to buy the planes.

“They have the money and they would like to order quite a few F-35s,” Trump said. “It’s the greatest fighter jet in the world, as you know, by stealth, totally stealth.”

“They’d like to buy F-35s, we’ll see what happens,” Trump added. “It’s under review, but they made a great advance in peace in the Middle East.”

Netanyahu said Tuesday he would oppose the sale despite the historic UAE deal after an Israeli newspaper reported that the normalization accord that Trump brokered included language to supply the Arab Gulf nation with advanced U.S. weapons systems.

Yediot Acharonot, citing American and Emirati sources, reported that Israeli acquiescence to the sales had clinched the deal for the Emiratis. Further, it reported that Netanyahu had made the deal behind the back of the Israeli defense establishment and kept Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both former military chiefs, in the dark about it.

In a statement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister has opposed the sale of F-35s and other advanced weapons to any country in the Middle East, including Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel.

Maintaining Israel’s regional military supremacy has been a hallmark of Israeli policy for decades, and Israel has used its close ties with Washington to ensure that certain sophisticated weapons are not sold to neighboring countries. The UAE has long been reported to be interested in acquiring U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighter jets and attack drones like those the Israelis have.

Netanyahu said Gantz had been updated on his opposition to F-35 sales just weeks ago. But as part of his various corruption scandals, Netanyahu has been accused by critics of bypassing Israel’s defense establishment with regard to a German sale of advanced submarines to Egypt.

In security-obsessed Israel, confirmation that military-related strings are attached to the deal could temper some of the excitement that has widely surrounded it thus far.

Gantz seemed to question Netanyahu’s denial in a media statement, saying he was only informed of last week’s blockbuster accord after the fact. Gantz, who also serves as the alternative prime minister and is Netanyahu’s chief coalition partner, is supposed to replace Netanyahu as premier next year. Gantz vowed to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge at any price.

Any F-35 sale could take years to negotiate and deliver, giving a new U.S. presidential administration ample time to halt the deal. Poland, the most recent F-35 customer, purchased 32 of the jets, but will not receive its first delivery until 2024. Any sale would also need congressional approval.

The United States guarantees that Israel receives more advanced American weapons than Arab states, giving it what is labeled a “Qualitative Military Edge” over its neighbors.

Under the accord with the UAE, Israel agreed to suspend its planned annexation of areas of Yehudah and Shomron. The agreement also firms up opposition to regional power Iran, which the UAE, Israel and the United States view as the main threat in the Middle East.