The F-35 sale to the UAE demonstrates the art of the peace deal

Leaders of all three countries got something they could feel good about.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner applaud after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 13, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner applaud after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 13, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The peace deal or the arms sale?
Israel and the United Arab Emirates have been inching closer together for years, about as long as the oil-rich Arab sheikdom has been trying to overcome Israeli objections to getting its hands on the world’s most sophisticated fighter jet, the F-35.
Last week’s announcement of the Abraham Accord, a peace agreement between Israel and the Emirates, made no mention of the stealth fighters or advanced armed drones, but without them there would be no deal.
President Donald Trump claimed credit for the peace pact, which was made possible by his readiness to override Israeli objections to selling the F-35 to the UAE. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no quid pro quo and that he still had objections to the sale, which The New York Times said could “dramatically alter” the regional military balance, but it was a non-denial denial.
Netanyahu denied he agreed to waive Israeli objections, but bear in mind his Trumpian non-propensity for truth-telling. He also knows that if Trump wants it, there is no way he can refuse, and for the transactional American president doing business comes first.
Leaders of all three countries got something they could kvell over, even if Israeli military leaders were privately complaining that ending the Jewish state’s regional monopoly on the F-35 would threaten its qualitative military edge, to which the United States is pledged but not required to maintain.
It will take several years for the first F-35s to arrive in the UAE, although the armed drones, which are more useful in regional conflicts, will come much earlier. For Trump, deal-making is all about business, diplomacy is just a frill.
“They have the money and they would like to order quite a few F-35s,” he said. When Trump looks at the Middle East he sees potential customers, not just for multi-billion-dollar arms deals, but for his branded hotels and golf courses.
Each plane sells for around $100 million plus training, maintenance and spare parts. The Pentagon, which actually makes a commission on these sales, even adds in shipping and handling. Arms sales to the Gulf states, most notably to the Saudis, have long been the Pentagon’s favorite cash cow.
Trump and first-son-in-law Jared Kushner, who takes credit for the Abraham Accord, expect to replicate the arms-for-peace deals elsewhere in the Arab world.
Buying peace deals with arms is nothing new. Without promises of billions in American economic and military aid Egypt might never have signed a peace treaty with Israel. At times when Congress threatened to cut aid to Egypt because of its abysmal human rights record, the first lobbyists to object were Israeli diplomats. There is a history of Israeli officials going behind Washington’s back and promising American aid and access to Third World countries in exchange for concessions they sought. One of the most notorious was the corrupt and oppressive regime of Mobutu Sese Seku in Zaire.

THE ABRAHAM ACCORD is more incremental and transactional than historic and dramatic. The deal takes public what had been going on for some time barely out of view. Nonetheless, it is a significant milestone.
UAE will get access to Israeli technology beyond the security realm as it seeks to diversify its economy, which has seen oil revenues decline in recent years and worsen in the face of the pandemic and falling demand. For Israel it means trade, investment and education.
There’s something in this for the Palestinians, if they choose to seize the opportunity. The deal gives Netanyahu the excuse he needed to shelve plans to annex major chunks of the West Bank – something he’d promised to his nationalist-settler base but balked at in the face of harsh objections from the Trump administration, European allies and Jordan. It also keeps two-state solution somewhere in the realm of the possible.
Nonetheless, the Palestinians vehemently object because they effectively lose their veto over Israeli-Arab relations – no peace without the Palestinians getting their state. That linkage is key to the now-moribund Arab Peace Plan. Even the original authors, the Saudis, are moving away. Last week the kingdom announced it would not formally recognize the Jewish state absent an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but informally they’ve been cooperating on security and intelligence for years.
The Palestinians have themselves and Iran to thank. Arab leaders have made little secret of their weariness with the Palestinians’ maximalist demands, inept leadership and refusal to diplomatically challenge or compromise with Israel. Palestinian diplomacy has been anti-Israel, while Israeli diplomacy ignored the Palestinians and stressed shared strategic interests elsewhere.
The Iranian threat convinced the Gulf states that they have more to fear from Tehran than Tel Aviv. The Zionists are no threat, and in fact, are important strategic allies in the face of the real dangers they face from Iran and its proxies. It’s the old principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Unlike Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which were to make peace, this is in many ways broader because it envisions normalization on many levels that still are missing in relations between Israel and its two peace partners.
The UAE deal put “the last nail in the coffin of the Trump peace plan,” which was going nowhere anyway, according to former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
However, it pays big political dividends. Netanyahu can insist this is a model for future agreements, “peace for peace” not “land for peace,” which he rejects. The Emiratis can get the jets and drones they want, and Donald Trump will host a pre-election White House signing ceremony where he can again declare he has brought lasting peace to the Holy Land so revered by his Evangelical base and Jewish donors.