President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)
How Trump’s arms deals risk more conflict in the Gulf

The announcement last week of an agreement to take steps toward normal relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates seemed like a foreign policy coup for two leaders — Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu — who desperately needed one. But since then, more details have emerged about the agreement, and the long-term implications, and perhaps even viability, of the deal are looking dimmer for the besieged leaders.

On Monday, a report emerged that Netanyahu had agreed to an American sale of F-35 fighter jets and other highly advanced weapons to the UAE as part of the agreement. Despite the prime minister’s vehement denials, the reporter who broke the story — Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea, one of the most respected journalists in Israel — stood by his reporting.

Although all parties claim the sale of the weapons is not a condition of the UAE-Israel agreement, subsequent statements support Barnea’s scoop. For example, the New York Times reported that American officials “do not dispute that the new momentum on the arms sale — after years of stalled requests by the Emirates to buy the fighter jet — is linked to the broader diplomatic initiative.”

Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told the Atlantic Council on Thursday that while the sale was not a condition of the agreement, the deal should make it easier for the UAE to purchase advanced weaponry because “the whole idea of a state of belligerency or war with Israel will no longer exist.”

Thus, both the Emiratis and Americans saw the arms sale as a motive for the agreement, even if it was not a specific condition. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Netanyahu thought the same, but the fact that the UAE has been actively pursuing the F-35 for years is common knowledge. Netanyahu is aware of every piece of hardware Arab states buy from the United States, and the effect the agreement would have for the Emiratis’ case for being allowed to purchase these weapons is far too obvious for his denial to be taken seriously.

Israel’s veto power

In theory, the U.S. doesn’t need Israel’s agreement to sell fighter jets to the UAE. But in practice, U.S. law and U.S. politics give Israel a de facto veto over such sales. This is due to the legal requirement that the United States maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” often referred to as QME.

The QME was defined, in the Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2008, as “the ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors, while sustaining minimal damage and casualties.” The same act requires the president to judge arms sales to other countries in the region, whether friend or foe to Israel, against maintaining Israel’s QME. All of this was reinforced by legislation passed in 2012 and 2014.

While maintaining the QME is enshrined in law, where the line is drawn remains a subjective matter. The point at which Israel has the edge that the law promises is a judgment call. So, if the Israeli government is comfortable with a sale to an Arab country, there would probably not be a challenge in Congress to that sale based on maintaining the QME. On the other hand, if there is Israeli concern, the chances of Congress approving such a sale are exceedingly slim, even if those weapons were being sold to Egypt, Jordan, or, soon, the UAE, the countries which have full diplomatic relations and are at peace with Israel.

It’s no secret that the president, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has been leading discussions with the Arab Gulf States including the UAE, very much want to increase arms sales to that troubled region. Congress has reasons beyond Israeli objections to be concerned about that, as they showed when they tried to stop a weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in May of 2019, forcing Pompeo to invoke a rarely used and controversial clause in the law to circumvent congressional approval and push the sale through — and leading to a presidential veto to prevent Congress from restricting the arms sales. Trump is now working to reduce or even eliminate Congress’s role in overseeing arms sales.

The F-35, and armed fighter drones that would be part of the same sale, are quite different matters as far as Israel is concerned. These are state of the art weapons. Israel got the F-35 in 2017, and it is expected to be used for decades to come. Thus, as Israel sees it, for the purpose of countering Iran, the fighter jet helps a bit, but the risk should UAE leadership shift its positions or suffer a radical change is much greater.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told the Jerusalem Post that “[a]ny sale of weapons by the United States to UAE or any other regional player will continue to be governed by our obligation to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge — that’s the law. This deal creates a host of new opportunities for Israel and America — including in the realm of security — and I believe that many great things will come from it.”

Friedman did not confirm or deny the report of the F-35 sale but said, “Ultimately, under the right circumstances, both the U.S. and Israel would benefit greatly from having a strong ally situated across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran.”

The Mideast after the Israel-UAE deal

If Israel does drop its objections and Congress permits the sale of such advanced weaponry to the UAE, it stands to reason that sales to Saudi Arabia would not be far behind. The F-35 and Predator drones would be major military upgrades, and we are already seeing increasingly aggressive policies from Saudi Arabia and the UAE not only with Iran in the Gulf, but in Yemen and Libya, among other potential hotspots.

The potential for conflict in the Gulf will rise dramatically if such an arms upgrade is coupled with a second Trump term. Iran would certainly feel a great deal of urgency to find ways to upgrade its own capabilities.

But there are good reasons to hope that the sales might not materialize. Joe Biden’s opposition to further arming Saudi Arabia is a good indication that, if he wins, he will kill the sale of the F-35 and Predators. Netanyahu conducted these talks in secret, without the participation or even knowledge of his ostensible partners, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, angering both men. And they are not the only ones in Israel who are concerned over such momentous arrangements having been made in secret. The political pressure on Netanyahu might well be enough to ensure that Congress does not approve this plan.

Still, the danger of escalation remains significant until the possibility of introducing such advanced weapons to the Gulf states is eliminated. There couldn’t be a better example of the grave danger posed by a U.S. president who sees himself as nothing more than a shady arms dealer.

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