Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was in Washington this week, to meet with U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. One subject of their meeting was, reportedly, the potential sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.
Gantz, who was initially livid about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu circumventing him and agreeing, verbally, with the United States and the UAE to permit the sale of the F-35 to Abu Dhabi as part of the agreement to normalize relations with Israel, had since come to endorse the idea. On this trip, he wanted to make sure that Israel got the best deal it could to ensure that any weapons sales to the UAE, or to other states that agree to normalize their relations with Israel, would not diminish Israel’s military dominance in the region.
On August 30, Gantz, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and other leading officials from the United States and Israel met and the Americans apparently reassured the Israelis that their qualitative military edge, or QME, would be maintained, as required by U.S. law. While President Donald Trump sees the normalization agreements with Israel primarily through the lens of his re-election race, others, like Kushner and Esper, also see a way to expand arms sales to the Middle East and to form what one leading Middle East analyst referred to recently as a “Middle East NATO.”
That idea had been a Trump administration goal, but appeared difficult to realize. Now, the stronger, more open relationships between Israel and leading Gulf Arab states — particularly if Saudi Arabia can be convinced to also normalize relations with Israel — has rekindled the idea and given it momentum.
But arms sales need to be approved by Congress, which is why the UAE, Bahrain, and other countries are befriending Israel. They hope that by normalizing relations with Israel, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress will be more open to selling them much higher-quality military equipment.
That is where the law that requires that the U.S. maintain Israel’s QME comes in. The only way to upgrade weapons sales to Arab states and maintain that QME is to proportionately upgrade the weapons sales to Israel. That can be tricky since the United States’ deep military partnership with Israel means that Israel is already receiving weapons that many other countries, especially Arab ones, cannot buy from Washington.
Ofer Israeli, of Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, suggested that Gantz could ask the Americans for three things that might help allay Israeli concerns about the QME. One would be to buy another fighter jet, the F-22, which is often compared favorably to the F-35. The other two items are cruise missiles and bunker-buster bombs, items which Israel has often expressed a desire to purchase, but which the United States has been reluctant to sell to its close ally. Both weapons would make it easier for Israel to threaten Iranian nuclear sites and other locations in the region, and, as such, would raise fears of an independent Israeli attack on Iran, escalating tensions.
Israeli recognized that these were big asks and saw them as acquisitions that would take some time and convincing for his government to obtain. “I don’t know if it can get them, but the dialogue on them should begin,” he told the Jewish News Syndicate.
According to a report in Israel’s Ynet news, Gantz also had a more immediate shopping list in his pocket. He would, the report said, seek to advance the delivery date of a new aerial refueling jet, the KC-46 Pegasus, and the F-15 EX, which the report described as having been “earmarked to become the next generation (of) IDF bombers by 2023, with improvements to its engine power, weaponry, aeronautic attributes and its cyberwar capabilities.” The report also said Israel would be seeking to acquire “advanced long-range capabilities,” which could refer to some of the items that Israeli mentioned.
Gantz left no doubt about the purpose of these sales to Israel and to its new-found partners. On Thursday, he told reporters, “It signals to Iran that it is facing a whole block of moderate countries, and that is a great advantage.”
Iran will likely view these developments with increasing alarm. With Israel becoming more openly close to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and all of those countries getting weapons upgrades from the United States, Tehran has no choice but to prepare to defend itself from increased aggression. That will mean bolstering its ability to strike through allied militias across the region, and working more closely with their own partners such as Russia and Turkey.
Iran will surely appeal to the European Union to try to convince the United States that it is risking an unwanted escalation, and even widespread conflict in the region with all these arms sales. Such pleas will, of course, fall on deaf ears in Donald Trump’s Washington.
But a Joe Biden administration might recognize the considerable risk the United States is taking by arming Iran’s enemies and bringing them together in a confrontational bloc against Tehran. Biden might decide to try to reverse the arms sales that Gantz, Kushner, and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of the UAE might agree to.
But Biden will face a political quandary if Israel expresses enthusiasm for the chain of arms sales. Strong Israeli support for the deals will be difficult to overcome on Capitol Hill.
While congressional Republicans will doubtless support the arms deals that the UAE and Israel are pursuing, Democrats might view them differently. In a potential indicator of how many Democrats might view the sales, outgoing Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, a long-time hawk on Israel who was in the meeting with Gantz this week, expressed concern about the sale of F-35 jets to the UAE.
“I’m concerned about it because once you lose that qualitative military edge, it’s a slippery slope,” Engel told reporters after the conference. Clearly, he was not entirely convinced that the United States could realistically balance the sale of so advanced a fighter plane as the F-35 against Israel’s QME. A handful of other Democrats in Congress have also expressed concern, and there’s even a bipartisan push to introduce a bill that reaffirms Israel’s QME.
If these members of Congress are queasy about the arms sales, there is significant hope that a President Biden can stop them, and would be able to take the unusual step of reversing an arms sale to Israel to do so. But it’s a dangerous step. If the attempt to halt the sales should jeopardize the normalization process with the UAE, Bahrain, (a possibility, depending on how important the arms sales are to the UAE) or hopes for something similar with Saudi Arabia, it will become a political hot potato very quickly.
If Trump wins the election, or if Republicans retain control of either house of Congress, it will be virtually impossible to reverse these arms sales if they are agreed upon. Congress can cancel these sales at any time, but if the president supports them, they will need a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate, and that is unlikely.
If Biden should win, it will be crucial not only that he is convinced to reverse or stop these sales, but that he get support from Benny Gantz and other Israeli officials who recognize the powder keg that is being filled to bursting by Trump’s machinations. Failure will mean a much more volatile Middle East, and that cannot possibly end well.