Why is Benny Gantz in Washington?

Despite corona, the defense establishment cannot ignore Iran and the UAE procuring F-35s.

Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R) with his US counterpart, Mark Esper, Pentagon, Washington DC, September 22, 2020 (photo credit: SHMULIK ALMANI)
Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R) with his US counterpart, Mark Esper, Pentagon, Washington DC, September 22, 2020
(photo credit: SHMULIK ALMANI)
Just hours after he instructed the IDF to prepare a field hospital for coronavirus patients, Defense Minister Benny Gantz flew from one red country to another to meet his US counterpart, Mark Esper, in Washington.
The whirlwind 24-hour trip would include “meetings to discuss maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge, international policy vis-à-vis Iran and strategy for stopping its expansion and entrenchment in the Middle East, as well as discussions on defense cooperation and procurement,” Gantz’s office said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington last week to sign normalization accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He was highly criticized for his trip, which took place just days before Israel entered a second lockdown as the rate of coronavirus infections and deaths spiked.
Many wondered why the prime minister would take such a trip while hundreds of Israelis were hospitalized with COVID-19, including at least 600 in serious condition and more than 1,000 who have died from it.
Millions of Israelis are dealing with the economic fallout brought about by the pandemic, with families struggling to put food on the table after losing their jobs.
Many Israelis were indifferent to the signing ceremony on the White House lawn; they had more immediate issues to contend with.
A week later, and several days into the second lockdown and 144 more coronavirus deaths, those same Israelis are still indifferent to Gantz flying to Washington. Others are asking why is he going: Can’t he hold these talks with conference calls like during the first lockdown?
Just as Gantz was set to land in Washington, Reuters reported that the US and the UAE hope to have an initial agreement on the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Gulf state in place by December 2, in time for UAE National Day.
As part of the normalization between Israel and the UAE, Abu Dhabi has made it no secret that it will procure the advanced F-35s. According to reports, it will also get Reaper drones and EA-18G Growlers, which are advanced electronic-warfare planes that can jam enemy air defenses and are flown only by the US and Australia.
Though it will take years before Emirati pilots will be in those cockpits, Israel is not willing to sit back and patiently wait before it gets new platforms.
Gantz has admitted that it is an American prerogative to sell to whoever whatever weapons they chose. But he has expressed concern about the UAE acquiring such advanced weaponry.
Gantz has already spoken to Esper by phone following reports that the UAE would seek to procure F-35s, so is it possible that the former chief of staff felt the need to speak to Esper face-to-face to stress the importance of Israel’s qualitative military edge and demand a heavy compensation package in return?
Israel will retain its QME in the Middle East despite any possible deals, Gantz told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. “We also make deals with the United States, and we can also get more platforms and systems,” he said. “This is not a one-sided deal.”
In recent days, Gantz has met with senior military officers, including Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, to discuss as to what sort of compensation Israel should demand from Washington in return.
The IAF is in dire need of upgrades, and Gantz likely will discuss the various platforms it would like, such as another F-35 squadron, F-15X fighter jets, KC-46 refuelers, Chinook or CH-53K helicopters and V-22 Ospreys.
While the defense establishment has been looking at these platforms for years, Gantz will likely demand that Washington move up the orders and add additional long-range weaponry or radar systems that had not been on the table before.
This whirlwind trip by Gantz, which will be followed by five days of self-quarantine instead of the usual 10 days, can be looked at in two ways: irresponsible to be flying away from the problems in Israel, or an opportunity that cannot be missed should President Donald Trump be voted out of office.
Either way, the topics Gantz discusses with Esper will ensure that even when Emirati pilots begin to fly F-35s, Israel has the platforms needed to keep its superiority in the skies of the Middle East.