On February 13, 1979, two days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic revolution took power in Tehran, US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown landed in Israel for his first visit to the Jewish state. Brown was greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by an honor guard, the IDF band, and his Israeli counterpart, Ezer Weizman.
“American commitment to Israel’s security, resting as it does on moral and political grounds as well as on vital and common security interests, is a long-standing one, and I reaffirm that today,” Brown said on the tarmac.
It was a commitment by which he would stand during his three days in Israel. Indeed, at a four-hour meeting with Weizman at the Defense Ministry the following day, Brown made an astonishing offer: the previous Iranian government led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had ordered dozens of F-16 fighter jets, Brown told Weizman. Now, of course, the US could not deliver them. Would Israel want them instead?
Weizman, a former commander of the Israeli Air Force, knew a thing or two about the need for aerial power, but wanted to get the opinion of then IAF commander Maj.-Gen. David Ivry.
He called Ivry and asked him to join the meeting, and when he walked in Weizman threw out the question: “Would you be interested in receiving the F-16s that were supposed to go to Iran?”
At the time, the IAF was in the middle of considering a few candidates as its next multi-role combat aircraft. The air force had already taken delivery of some F-15s, while its main workhorse at the time was still the F-4 Phantom. The Defense Ministry was in negotiations for its own first order of 75 F-16s, but was still trying to iron out questions with the Americans about integrating Israeli technology into them.
Brown’s offer was enticing. If Ivry said yes, Israel would get the planes in just over a year. On the other hand, the Iranian F-16s were already coming off the assembly line, which meant that if he took them, Israel would receive planes that did not come with the IAF’s own customized technology.
“Yes,” Ivry replied, he would take the planes.
While Israeli technology was important, Ivry wanted the planes as quickly as possible. On his mind was Osirak, the nuclear reactor that Saddam Hussein was building outside of Baghdad. If Israel would need to attack it one day, Ivry thought to himself, these F-16s will be able to get the job done without mid-air refueling, which all his other planes required.
The first F-16s arrived in July 1980, and 11 months later six of them flew to Iraq to destroy Osirak, denying Saddam the possibility of a nuclear bomb.
Israel, using planes made for Iran, destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq.
IT IS an important story to remember amid the news this week that the Trump administration plans to finalize the sale of advanced F-35 stealth jets to the United Arab Emirates by December. While it will still take five to seven years until the first planes arrive in Abu Dhabi, the Israeli defense establishment is not taking the news lightly, for two primary reasons.
The first is the Iran example. Imagine that the revolution in Iran had taken place in 1981 and not in 1979. Had that happened, Iran would have had a fleet of state-of-the-art F-16s. Israel, prior to the revolution, was also in the process of creating a joint missile system with the Iranians. Imagine if that had gone through before Khomeini took over.
Today, the UAE is a safe and stable country but in a region like the Middle East, we have seen what can happen when people rise up and topple what had hitherto seemed like stable regimes. Could this happen one day in the UAE? Who knows.
The second concern is that the sale of F-35s to the Emirates will likely not be the last of it. The UAE has the potential to lead to the proliferation of arms in a way never seen in the Middle East.
If the UAE receives the planes, what will happen when Egypt asks for them? Or Jordan?
Moreover, if this is the benefit an Arab state gets from the US for making peace with Israel, what will happen when the Saudis come to the table and demand their own F-35s – or more? Will the US be able to say “no” to all these countries, and will Israel be able to stop the deals if America decides to go ahead with them?
The answer to both is probably no. If the US sells F-35s to the UAE, it won’t be able to deny a similar request from the Saudis. And even if Israel wanted to lobby the administration or Congress against the sales, its hands will be tied – it’s not going to engage in political battle against a country with which it just moments ago signed a peace deal.
That is where the discussions between Israel and the US come into play. Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge – better known by the acronym QME – is one of the more delicate topics of discussion between the two governments.
While some people might think that the question is about quantity or types of platforms that Israel receives, that is not always the case.
Egypt and Jordan have F-16s and Saudi Arabia has F-15s. Israel also has both planes, but the ones in the IAF’s fleet are far more advanced, with superior electronic warfare systems, radar and standoff munitions. When it comes to those planes, it’s about quality, not just quantity.
Can a similar arrangement be reached when it comes to the F-35? Maybe. The fact is that by the time the UAE potentially receives its F-35s, Israel will have been using them for close to a decade. Either way, the QME discussions will need to continue. What will come of them will evolve over time.
UNTIL THEN, it is worth wondering how Israelis would have responded had they known from the outset that the historic peace deal with the UAE was going to include the sale of F-35.
My guess? They would have been fine with it, and if explained correctly, would have understood that there is no such thing as a free peace deal, even if the prime minister likes to pretend that this was a “peace for peace” deal and not a peace deal for F-35s and no annexation.
But making that kind of pitch to the public is about trust, and unfortunately, trust is sorely missing in Israel right now. It is almost impossible to find anywhere – not between the government and the people; not between the different parties in the government; and not between the different sectors of society.
Everyone is suspicious of the other, and no one believes that they are acting in good faith. That is why it was no surprise when Netanyahu hid news of the UAE deal from Defense Minister Benny Gantz and denied initial reports about the F-35 component.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the United States last week for the signing of the peace deals, people wondered why he needed to go with his children, and if he wasn’t more focused on a family vacation than their health. When Gantz went to Washington this week, people wondered how he could leave the country at a time when the nation was in a lockdown, and if he wasn’t going just so he could have a break from the political pressure.
When Netanyahu started to push on Wednesday morning for a total lockdown, his coalition partners from Blue and White accused him of using coronavirus to stop the weekly protests against him. When ministers called to close synagogues, Haredim said they would only do so if the protests were also stopped, and vice versa for the other coalition partners when it came to the protesters.
That is the problem: no one is fighting this battle together, and no one is willing to take responsibility. Instead of recognizing mistakes, everyone is looking for someone to blame. A perfect example was seen on Saturday night, when two of Netanyahu’s closest advisers – Ofer Golan and Topaz Luk – were spotted filming protesters near Balfour Street.
Luk wasn’t even supposed to be out of his house. He was with Netanyahu in Washington last week, and was supposed to be under house quarantine. But he was out, filming a group of demonstrators waving signs that deny the existence of COVID-19. In response to the news, the PMO issued a statement saying that Luk was on his way to get a coronavirus test, something everyone who had been on Netanyahu’s plane had been asked to do.
But the coronavirus tests were being administered at the Prime Minister’s Office a few miles away, not at the residence on Balfour. When Luk and Golan later filed a lawsuit against two journalists who had claimed that they had made up the anti-corona protests to delegitimize the majority of protesters, their version of events changed. In the suit, they admitted that they had been at the rally to film protesters. So which was it, Golan and Luk? Were you on the way to be tested, or out to film the protesters?
The truth is that it doesn’t really make a difference, because no matter what they say, it’ll be impossible to believe them. Here are two of the closest people to the prime minister who have no problem telling a lie one day and spinning a tale the next. There is simply no shame. None. Zero.
Here’s the bottom line: without trust there is no way we can defeat this virus. Without trust in one another, in the government, and in our local authorities, how can Israelis be expected to adhere to the draconian restrictions being imposed on them once again?
Unfortunately, there is no good answer. As long as there’s no trust, there’s no real way of winning. And the saddest part of it is that it might be too late.