Israel Could Lose Its Military Edge in Middle East Under Trump Plans

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scored a historic win last week when the United Arab Emirates announced the normalization of ties between the two Middle Eastern nations—only the third Arab state to do so.

But reports about the details of the deal quickly took the shine off the agreement, suggesting that the U.S. brokered talks included an agreement to allow the UAE to purchase advanced American weaponry; specifically U.S. F-35 stealth jets and cutting edge attack drones.

Netanyahu and his allies quickly denied the suggestions—first made by Israeli news site Ynet—and said Israel remains committed to maintaining its qualitative military edge over its regional neighbors, whether relations with them are normalized or not.

But a New York Times report published Wednesday suggested that President Donald Trump is keen to push new lucrative weapons deals with the Emiratis, facilitated by son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner, who has been at the forefront of the administration's Middle East strategy.

The key weapons in question are the F-35 stealth jet and U.S. attack drones, namely the Predator and the larger, better armed Reaper. Barbara Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the UAE, told the Times: "The F-35 has been the single-biggest defense system objective the Emiratis have had for years."

Israel is the only Middle Eastern nation armed with the F-35, which experts tout as the most advanced jet fighter in the world. The country has ordered a total of 75 jets, and in 2018 became the first nation to use the aircraft in combat.

F-35 sales to the Emiratis—or any other Gulf nations that might follow their lead and normalize relations with Israel—will make Israeli and American lawmakers nervous. Any sale would have to go through Congress, meaning that even if a deal is proposed it may not succeed. Congress has already put a hold on an Emirati effort to purchase Predator drones, the Times reported.

But Leaf said the UAE will expect pay off from the normalization. "If you're making the big move—normalization of relations—you're in a different position as an Arab state," she said.

Even if a deal is proposed, the UAE might not get the same exact model as the Israelis. The U.S. often sells less potent versions of its own weapons to foreign buyers, and the Israeli government might be able to apply enough pressure to make any UAE F-35s inferior to their own.

"It's about the avionics—what they come with," explained Yossi Mekelberg of the British Chatham House think tank and Regent's University in London. "It's a bit like when you buy a car, what specifications you have in the car."

The Israelis have also developed their own avionics for use in jets and drones, which the UAE won't have access to. And even if the Emiratis secure F-35s, they likely won't be able to buy or field them in the same numbers or with the same expertise as the Israelis.

"The UAE is a small country with a relatively small military capacity," Mekelberg told Newsweek. "It's not going to change the military balance."

Still, the rumor mill has somewhat undermined Netanyahu's achievement, handing his political opponents—including coalition partner and Defense Minister Benny Gantz—ammunition to use against him.

The deal is still fresh and many details of the negotiations remain unknown. Exactly what was agreed and why remains unclear. Nahum Barnea—the Israeli journalist who uncovered the apparent weapons clause—told The Daily Beast that Netanyahu may have agreed to the clause in exchange for being able to publicly condemn it in future.

Or perhaps U.S. and Israeli negotiators allowed UAE officials to believe they have secured the rights to F-35 purchases, knowing that further down the line they could block any sales.

American officials have long committed to protecting Israel's military superiority over its neighbors, though earlier this week a State Department official told Newsweek they would not comment on any arms deals before Congress is notified.

"Netanyahu is not famous for telling the truth," Mekelberg said, while "Trump is not exactly a beacon of honesty."

"So it's a question of who you believe right now," Mekelberg said. "Possibly you don't believe anyone right now."

F-35, UAE, Israel, Weapons, drones, Donald Trump
A U.S. F-35B Lightning II fighter jet performs an aerial display during the Singapore Airshow media preview on February 9, 2020 in Singapore. Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images/Getty