Channel 13 report, verified by PMO, says NSC chief Meir Ben-Shabbat went over Gantz’s head to ask air force chief directly what Israel thought of fighter jet’s sale to Gulf state
Two new F-35 fighter jets land at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel from the United States on July 14, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
US President Donald Trump on Wednesday confirmed that US was reviewing the potential sale of F-35 stealth fighters to the United Arab Emirates, amid reports the arms deal was an integral part of Abu Dhabi’s agreement last week to normalize ties with Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied reports Israel gave its approval to Washington selling the UAE advanced weapons systems, including American F-35 warplanes, as part of the deal to normalize relations between the countries.
But in recent months top Israeli officials reviewed the possibility of US sales of the F-35 to countries in the region.
Channel 13 first reported Wednesday that said National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat in June asked Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin about the Israeli position on sales of F-35s in the Middle East. He mentioned vaguely that the US was looking at such potential sales.
Norkin responded that traditionally Israel has opposed such action.
Channel 13 reported that Ben-Shabbat had not followed protocol, which would have required him to speak to Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office on the matter. Norkin did not notify IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi of the conversation, the report said.
Netanyahu has said he kept Gantz and other top Israeli officials in the dark about the emerging normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates over fears the news would be leaked and plans to formalize relations would be disrupted by regional foes.
In response to the Channel 13 report, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the conversation took place, saying it was part of “an ongoing dialogue between military officials and the NSC on hundreds of issues.”
It said once Ben-Shabbat was told the military’s position was unchanged, “this traditional position was conveyed to the Americans by the prime minister.”
Asked about the F-35 deal Monday night during a White House press conference, Trump said of the UAE: “They would like to order quite a few F-35s. It’s the greatest fighter jet in the world… They’d like to buy F-35s, we’ll see what happens. It’s under review.”
He added: “They’ve definitely got the money to pay for it. It’s nice because a lot of times when we make deals they don’t have 10 cents, these countries we deal with. We give to them, [saying] ‘ How about paying this back later?’ But they never pay because they don’t have the money.”
US officials speaking to the New York Times Wednesday also denied the potential F-35 sale was a reward to Abu Dhabi for the peace agreement with Israel, but they did acknowledge that efforts to clinch such a deal had been provided new momentum by the normalization agreement.
On Tuesday the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, citing American and Emirati sources, reported that last week’s US-brokered agreement included language to supply the Arab Gulf nation with advanced weaponry, including F-35s.
Furthermore, it reported that Netanyahu had made the deal behind the back of the Israeli defense establishment and kept Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both former IDF chiefs, in the dark about it.
Netanyahu tweeted on Tuesday morning that the story by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily was “utter fake news.” In a statement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister has opposed the sale of F-35s and other advanced weapons to any country in the Middle East, including Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel.
But an Emirati official told Yedioth on Tuesday night that Netanyahu gave his approval to the arms deal, a development which could see Israel’s military edge in the region compromised.
The US has also denied the report officially, with a White House statement on Tuesday evening saying there was no secret arms deal included in the UAE-Israel agreement.
However, former White House Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt appeared to hint at the possibility of there having been a backroom deal for Israel to remove its objections. “Whatever happened behind closed doors I’m sure makes sense, even if it might look more flexible than in the past,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.
Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the US Congress promised to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East by considering Jerusalem’s position before selling advanced weapons to the Jewish state’s neighbors.
That promise has prevented Trump, who has cultivated warmer ties with Gulf nations, from signing major deals with the UAE. But that is no longer the case, Yedioth reported Tuesday morning, citing unnamed American and Emirati officials.
The report cited unnamed sources estimating that the UAE crown prince and de-facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, had conditioned the entire deal on the inclusion of the weapons deal clause.
Gantz on Tuesday vowed to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge at any price.
“The future and [the] resiliency of Israel depend on two efforts: Striving for peace and insisting, without any compromise, upon maintaining our military superiority in every place in the Middle East,” he said.
Ashkenazi said in a press briefing that “we are not familiar with any defense-related promises as part of the deal with the UAE, and if there are [any,] they weren’t made with the consultation or knowledge of myself or the Foreign Ministry.
“The IDF’s military edge is one of the most important aspects of our security,” he added.
Israel and the UAE announced the US-brokered accord on Thursday, saying that they were establishing full diplomatic relations in exchange for freezing plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Israel had previously planned to unilaterally move ahead with the annexation of the Jordan Valley and the settlements, on the basis of the US peace plan.
The agreement makes the UAE the third Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan, to have full, active diplomatic ties with Israel. Thursday’s joint statement said deals between Israel and the UAE were expected in the coming weeks regarding matters such as as tourism, security and trade.