Oct 23, 2020 - World

Israel drops opposition to F-35 deal between U.S. and UAE

Netanyahu and Trump before the signing of the Abraham Accords. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz announced in a joint statement on Friday that Israel will not object to the sale of F-35 fighter jets by the U.S. to the United Arab Emirates.

Why it matters: The Trump administration was planning to notify Congress in the next few days about the upcoming deal, which has been a top priority for the UAE, Israeli officials said. The statement will likely convince Congress not to intervene against the deal over concerns for the Israel’s security.

The state of play: The Israeli statement was released after Gantz met Thursday at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

  • According to Israeli officials, Gantz and Esper signed a classified memorandum of understandings that included a U.S. commitment for preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East.
  • That paved the way for today's move from Israel, which was very important to the White House, Israeli officials told me.

The backstory: Israel is currently the only country in the Middle East to possess America's most advanced fighter aircraft, and the proposed sale had been a major headache in the wake of Israel's normalization deal with the UAE.

  • Netanyahu vehemently denied that he had given a green light to the arms deal as part of the normalization talks, which in turn led to anger from the UAE.

What they're saying: "The prime minister and the defense minister both agree that since the U.S. is upgrading Israel’s military capability and is maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, Israel will not oppose the sale of these systems to the UAE," the Netanyahu-Gantz statement said.

  • Netanyahu said in his own statement that the understandings with the U.S. on Israel’s qualitative military edge were not part of the peace agreement with the UAE, adding that the talks about them started just a month ago. He also said that the Israeli green light for the deal came after an assessment by Israel's defense ministry.
  • Gantz also issued his own second statement criticizing Netanyahu for keeping him in the dark about the deal: "After the announcement of the peace deal with the UAE, I found out that, at the same time, the U.S. and the UAE were negotiating separately the sale of advanced weapons. This was known to Israeli officials who were involved in the negotiations but was withheld from the Israeli security establishment which was not part of those talks."

The big picture: This is a 180-degree shift in Netanyahu’s public position toward the deal.

  • After news of it first broke in the Israeli press, Netanyahu denied he had ever given the deal a green light — and even called it fake news.
  • He stressed publicly that he was against the sale and even said at one cabinet meeting that he would actively object to the deal in his talks with Congress.

Between the lines: Netanyahu was under heavy criticism over the deal — and the fact he didn’t disclose it to the public or even his defense minister.

  • Today's statement was published while many Israelis are observing Shabbat and disconnected from the news.
  • It was also released in the midst of the news about the new normalization deal with Sudan, which took some of the attention away from an issue that was less convenient for Netanyahu.
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