The F-35 sale to the UAE is a self-imposed saga - analysis

What makes this saga is even more frustrating is that in this particular case the UAE deal could have been all silver lining – with no clouds visible at all.

An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet flies during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli airforce pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 29, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet flies during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli airforce pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 29, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Some nations – familiar with that well-worn phrase about every cloud having a silver lining – look for those silver linings whenever the clouds move in.
Less so Israel – which has an uncanny aptitude to hunt for the clouds whenever a silver lining happens to emerge.
The saga over the US sale of F-35s, and other advanced weaponry, to the United Arab Emirates, is a case in point.
What makes this saga even more frustrating is that in this particular case, the UAE deal could have been all silver lining – with no clouds visible at all. In this case the clouds were completely unnecessary ones, and they were self-made. Or, to be more precise, they were generated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates is good. Even very good. Most Israelis would agree that the changes it has brought to the region and Israel’s place in it, and the changes it will bring in the future, are well worth even the price of the US selling state-of-the-art weaponry to the UAE that could conceivably be used against Israel one day.
Why? Because most believe that this agreement fundamentally alters the Middle east strategic map; that unless the regime in the UAE is overthrown by Islamists they won’t be attacking Israel anytime soon; and that even if they would, by the time they receive delivery of the planes in another seven years, Israel will have developed or obtained an antidote to any weapon that the UAE or any other Arab country may field.
Which, apparently, is how things are playing out.
Yes, the US administration wants to sell the UAE it’s long sought after F-35s, but it will also apparently supply Israel with even more advanced weapons systems able to counter the very advanced systems the UAE will obtain. So Israel will retain its Qualitative Military Edge.
Where matters get dicey and problematic is in the pre-story.
ON AUGUST 17, Netanyahu addressed the nation to discuss the historic deal with the UAE that was announced four days earlier. The announcement came after weeks of speculation as to whether Israel would extend its sovereignty, under US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” to large parts of the West Bank.
“Last Thursday, together with US President Donald Trump and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, I declared the historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates” Netanyahu said.
“This is the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab country in 26 years. It is different from its predecessors because it is based on two principles: ‘peace for peace’ and ‘peace through strength,’" the prime minister said. “Under this doctrine, Israel is not required to withdraw from any territory and together the two countries openly reap the fruits of a full peace: investments, trade, tourism, health, agriculture, environmental protection and in many other fields, including defense of course."
The Defense establishment – from Defense Minister Benny Gantz on down – was blindsided by the deal, had no inkling of what was going down, and had to turn to the Pentagon to ascertain whether it included the sale of the F-35s to the UAE. According to a bombshell story in Yediot Aharonot that appeared on August 18, the answer was a resounding yes.
Netanyahu furiously denied this. His office issued a statement calling the report “fake news,” and said that “the historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates did not include Israel’s consent to any arms deal whatsoever between the United States and the UAE.”
Yet here we are, two months later, and the administration informed Gantz last week that it will notify Congress shortly of its intention to sell “certain weapons systems” to the UAE. In other words, the F-35s.
Gantz, in dueling communiques with Netanyahu on Friday, doubled down on his claim that the prime minister knew during the negotiations about the sale, but did not inform the Defense Ministry. Netanyahu has denied this, saying that he never agreed to the sale during the negotiations over the Abraham Accords, and that the Americans asked him about it only after the deal was signed.
WHAT IS problematic here is the process, not the end result. It stretches credulity to think that Netanyahu was unaware that one of the by-products of the deal – even if not part of the formal agreement – would be the sale of these planes.
And that raises two questions. Why did he keep the security establishment in the dark that the deal was imminent, and why was he not completely frank with the nation when announcing the accord, and instead simply say that it includes a US sale of advanced weapons to the UAE?
Regarding why he did not loop in the defense establishment – which obviously should be the first to be apprised of any potential arms sales that could impact the region’s military balance – this is similar to the Foreign Ministry having been shut out of key diplomatic decisions and developments since Netanyahu took office in 2009.
Netanyahu, even when he himself was foreign minister, boxed the ministry out to a large extent because he just doesn’t trust many in the senior echelon. The UAE plane saga is an indication that he is now distrustful of the Defense Ministry as well, with this distrust surely having to do with the fact that the ministry is in the hands of his chief political rival.
Netanyahu’s governing style has long been marked by a sense of “I know what I am doing – trust me.”
Many do trust him, which is why he has remained prime minister for as long as he has. But, increasingly, many others do not. And the “trust me, I have the country’s best interests at heart” argument falls flat with those convinced that ulterior motives – political, personal – are factored into decisions he makes, decisions where other relevant voices, like in this case, are inexplicably side-lined.
THE SECOND question is why Netanyahu was not completely frank from the very beginning. Why didn’t he say, when he announced the deal, that there are ongoing discussions in Washington about selling F35s to the UAE?
After weighing the pros and cons and doing a cost-benefit analysis, Israel – and the defense establishment – certainly would have still applauded the deal. This analysis would probably have concluded that normalization with a UAE in possession of F35s is preferential to no ties with a UAE not in possession of those same planes.
Then why not just come out and admit it up front?
Because that would have made hollow Netanyahu’s claim that this deal was one of “peace for peace.” Apparently, this deal was not straight up “peace for peace,” but necessitated Israeli concessions: not extending sovereignty over the West bank and turning a blind eye to US sale of advanced arms to the UAE.
Netanyahu pointed to the “peace for peace” deal with the UAE as vindication of his long-held belief that if Israel only remains strong and tough, it can make peace on its own terms without needing to give up any land or sacrificing any security interests. Admitting that the arms sale was part of the bargain, even if not a formal part, would spoil that narrative – a narrative that is strong to campaign on.
And in this country– where the last 20 months seem like one endless election campaign, with no end in sight – what perpetually campaigning prime minister would want to spoil such a strong narrative?