Amid US-UAE arms deal and US election, Israelis wonder how balance of power in region might change

Nov 3, 2020

Under US law, Congress must consult with Israel on any Middle East weapons sales. That’s because Washington is committed to maintaining Israel’s "qualitative military edge." 

Last week, the State Department said it’s considering a $10.4 billion deal to sell up to 50 F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. It’s possible thanks to a recent normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel. If the deal is completed, the UAE will be only the second Middle Eastern country after Israel to fly them.

The news has raised questions among Israeli defense officials, who warn that the proposed deal could have negative strategic effects for Israel. In an interview with Israeli television last week, Israeli Air Force Chief Amikam Norkin said that although a possible sale would not necessarily have an immediate negative impact for Israel, in the long term it could upset the balance of power in the region. Meanwhile, the outcome of the US election has Israelis holding their breath on possible US foreign policy changes if President Donald Trump loses.

In response to the planned US-UAE deal, Israel expected to receive something from its American friends, too.

Israeli news reports have suggested that new F-22 stealth fighters from the US could be on the table. That’s to ensure Israel’s air superiority in the region, now that the UAE might have F-35s. But that’s not the only threat Israel faces in the region. Iran’s nuclear aspirations have also threatened Israel. In Congress, bipartisan legislation introduced last week would require the US Department of Defense to consider selling Israel bunker-buster bombs capable of penetrating heavily fortified underground infrastructure, which hold some of Iran’s most sensitive nuclear material.

According to New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, the bill is aimed at “requiring the Department of Defense to consult with Israel and report to Congress on Israel’s capability to deter a full range of threats, including whether transferring ‘bunker buster’ munitions capable of taking on Iran’s underground nuclear infrastructure would advance both countries’ security.” 

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The bunker-buster munitions Gottheimer referred to are “massive ordnance penetrator” (MOP) bombs, among the most advanced non-nuclear weapons in the US military’s arsenal. They’re also nicknamed the “mother of all bombs,” or MOAB.

But Ya’akov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, doubts that these weapons will actually be sold to Israel. It’s not that the Israeli military doesn’t want them, he says. It’s because its Air Force doesn't have the type of aircraft — such as the US’ B-2 bomber — to carry such a bomb. But to maintain its own military superiority, the US strategically does not sell certain weapons to other countries, even allies like Israel.

“We don’t have enough chutzpah to ask the Americans to provide us with B-2s. We have to know the limitations of even a superpower [such] as America.”

Ya’akov Amidror,  former Israeli national security adviser

“The Americans, as far as I know, have around 20 B-2s,” Amidror says. “We don’t have enough chutzpah to ask the Americans to provide us with B-2s. We have to know the limitations of even a superpower [such] as America.”

Amidror has long experience negotiating weapons deals with the US. He says he’s confident that if the US sells F-35s to the UAE, then Washington will come through for Israel. While he doesn’t know exactly what that US support will look like, he is certain it will help maintain Israel’s military edge in the region. 

Thanks to decades of Israel enjoying a unique relationship with the US, Israeli defense officials fly to Washington almost every year with a shopping list of their security wants and needs. 

“We came and said to the Americans, that [is] what we need, and in many cases, we got it and in some cases, we didn’t, but it’s a dialogue,” Amidror says. “The Americans can say, this item we cannot provide you with this item. But what we can do is A, B and C, which will help you to deal with the problem in another way.”

The goal of this cooperation is to ensure that Israel can defend itself, by itself, without having to rely on American troops. Amirdror points out that the US has sold fighter jets to Israel’s Arab neighbors in the past, following their peace deals with the Jewish State.

“It’s the Middle East, and countries want to defend themselves,” Amidror says. “They want to be in a position that they are getting American weapons systems. It happened with the agreement with Egypt, it happened with the agreement with Jordan, and now it’s happening with the agreement with the Emirates.”

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Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel, doesn’t share that confidence. He served under President Barack Obama between 2011 and 2016. 

“President Trump’s decision to sell the F-35 aircraft to the UAE, essentially as part of the agreement for its normalization with Israel, potentially does serious damage to Israel’s qualitative military edge,” Shapiro says.

So if the UAE is expected to receive F-35s as part of its normalization deal with Israel, he says, other Arab countries in the region might see that and expect to receive the jets if they establish diplomatic relations with Israel.  

“We could find that this launches a very dangerous arms race in the region, exactly the opposite of the dynamic one would hope that normalization would produce.”

Dan Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel

“We could find that this launches a very dangerous arms race in the region, exactly the opposite of the dynamic one would hope that normalization would produce,” Shapiro says.

He describes Trump’s approach to Middle East diplomacy as entirely transactional. But that will most likely change if Democratic candidate Joe Biden becomes president, Shapiro says. Though a Biden administration would also push for Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, the former vice president and current Democratic candidate would also pursue some different goals.  

“He intends to work to sustain the viability of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, including reversing a number of very damaging steps that President Trump has made,” he says. 

Those missteps, Shapiro says, include cutting off diplomatic relations with the Palestinians and ending all US assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Biden has also said he would try to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table for nuclear talks. The last time those talks took place, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke against it during a 2015 speech delivered to members of the US Congress

Whether that might happen again is not clear. But one thing is certain: In Jerusalem, Israeli leaders will be watching the results of the US election very closely.

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