Mideast arms race: Is Israel’s qualitative military edge eroding?

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In depth: Experts on U.S. strategy in region say advanced U.S. weaponry sold to Arab states is traditionally less sophisticated than that sold to Jerusalem, but warn that ‘part of price of peace is that Arabs receive American weapons’

The Media Line – https://www.ynetnews.com

An F-35 fighter jet
(Photo: AP)

Following the news of a massive F-35 fighter jet deal between the United States and the United Arab Emirates, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz admitted that Israel has no power to prevent U.S. sales of advanced weaponry to the Gulf states.

Steinitz told Ynet on Sunday that if countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia “want it and are willing to pay, no doubt that sooner or later they’ll get” stealth aircraft and other weapons systems.

The surprise statement, which may very well be a foreshadowing of things to come, was made as Israel continues to grapple with the revelation of the pending sale between the U.S. and the UAE.

More important, reports continue to surface claiming Israeli officials, namely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, knew of and approved the deal beforehand, but avoided informing defense officials before the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE was finalized.

On Friday, Netanyahu released a statement saying Israel would not oppose the sale “of certain American weapons systems to the UAE,” thereby breaking from a long-standing Israeli policy.

The prime minister also claimed that news of the deal was broken to him only on Friday, by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who had returned from an urgent Washington meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Fuming, Gantz immediately released a message of his own, essentially accusing Netanyahu of lying.

“After the signing of the normalization accord with the UAE [on August 13], the defense minister discovered that parallel negotiations were being conducted for the sale of advanced weapons – a fact that was known to the Israeli officials involved, but hidden from the Defense Ministry,” Gantz said.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations and U.S. policy in the Middle East at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv, explains that “Israel has no real power to prevent these deals, but it can and did manage to change them in the past.”

“The U.S. has always looked to supply very sophisticated weapons, which nobody else can offer, to countries across the world, but Israel had opposed this, usually through the AIPAC lobby and through Congress,” Gilboa says, noting that the formal opposition was a means of ensuring that Jerusalem would be compensated handsomely for any American-Arab arms deals.

Washington’s commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the Middle East is enshrined in U.S. law and has been maintained rigorously by all presidents and administrations for decades.

“This is a difficult equation to translate into real terms,” Gilboa says. “And the problem here is that Gantz got [to Washington] after Netanyahu had already agreed to the deal.

“That’s what happens when the prime minister does this kind of thing without consulting the military and Defense Ministry. [The Esper-Gantz meeting] should’ve been held before [the signing of the Abraham Accords], when Israel had more leverage, not after.”

Upon his return Friday, Gantz said he had secured from his American counterpart a reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s military superiority. The two also discussed upgrades for the Israel Air Force, which Washington vowed to partially fund.

“This [F-35 jet] has a very unique system, not just the plane but the entire envelope. Its reconnaissance and combat abilities are unparalleled,” Gilboa says.

“In the past, the U.S. adjusted such weapons before selling them to Arab nations, and subtracted some abilities so that they would be inferior to the ones Israel received.”

Prof. Ephraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, was blunter.

“Don’t think for a second this is the same F-35 that we got,” he says.

“We have to admit: Part of the price of peace is that the Arabs receive American weapons. It happened with Egypt and Jordan. It’s nothing new.

“America wants to sell; the military-industrial complex has a lot of sway and especially now, with the Trump Administration. So, they’ll compensate us with something based on the QME. But who knows what that means? That’s why they call it qualitative, not quantitative.”

The weekend’s news aligns with reports from early August that claimed Netanyahu had agreed to green light the U.S.-UAE arms deal and committed to not lobby Congress to oppose it, in return for the UAE’s agreement to recognize and normalize relations with Israel.

The prime minister denied the allegations and this week doubled down on his denial, claiming the F-35 sale was never officially part of the Abraham Accords.

 

Inbar sees the dispute between Gantz and Netanyahu as largely insignificant.

“That’s a domestic political issue, which shouldn’t have happened. But essentially, strategically, it doesn’t matter much,” he says.

“At the end of the day, the sale would’ve happened, unfortunately. It’s part of the package.”

Gilboa identifies another problem: the precedent it might set for other nations.

“The problem now is that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others will also want [F-35 aircraft],” he says, adding that a Middle Eastern arms race is quite likely “now that that barrier is broken.”

 

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