The United Arab Emirates’ desire to simultaneously upgrade its defense ties with Israel and the United States will probably create political controversy in both countries, though the benefits of deeper security cooperation with Abu Dhabi is more likely to earn greater support in Israel than Washington. On Aug. 25, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Emirati counterpart, Mohammed al-Bawardi, reportedly discussed possible security cooperation in their two countries’ first publicly-known phone call since agreeing to normalize ties.
The call came a day after the United Arab Emirates canceled a planned trilateral meeting with the United States and Israel in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public objection to the potential sale of the American F-35 stealth fighter jets to Abu Dhabi.
The pending arms deal between the United States and the United Arab Emirates was reportedly part of the negotiation process for the U.S.-brokered normalization deal between Israel and Abu Dhabi.
Israel’s unity government has been divided on whether to grant Abu Dhabi access to such fighter jets and other advanced weaponry, with Netanyahu reportedly holding discussions about the U.S. sale of F-35 jets in particular without Gantz.
Most of Israel’s center-right politicians, such as those in Gantz’s Resilience Party as well as his former Likud party, oppose advanced arms sales to even friendly Arab Gulf states for fear the weapons systems or technologies might fall into anti-Israeli hands — a policy commonly known as Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME).
A new U.S. administration after the November election could deter U.S. sales of advanced weapons to the United Arab Emirates. A White House led by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, or a Congress controlled by a Democratic majority, could succumb to pressure from some U.S. lobbies who have campaigned against the United Arab Emirates’ involvement in Yemen and Libya’s ongoing civil wars. A Biden administration would also be more likely to limit a U.S.-Emirati defense relationship due to concerns over Abu Dhabi’s growing defense ties with China.
Like their Israeli counterparts, many U.S. legislators are also divided on approving new weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, and have expressed they remain wary of undermining Israel’s military superiority.
The Emiratis have a long history of seeking advanced U.S. weapons, including the F-35, but Washington’s long-standing commitment to maintaining Israel’s military edge in the region has typically blocked Abu Dhabi and its Arab Gulf allies from acquiring weapons systems that are of the same caliber as Israel’s. The bipartisan pro-Israel lobby in Congress remains a formidable force, and is unlikely to acquiesce to advanced arms sales without a green light from the Israeli government.
Abu Dhabi’s controversial human rights record in Yemen and Libya has alarmed some U.S. lawmakers who want to see U.S. allies behave with greater discretion, especially when using American-made weapons systems.
In July 2019, Congress blocked emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over concerns about the use of the weapons and those countries’ human rights records. The legislation was ultimately vetoed by Trump, which a split Senate vote then failed to overturn.
In addition to purchasing drones and small arms from China in recent years, the United Arab Emirates has also permitted the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to set up the country’s 5G networks in the country.
If the F-35 sale falters, other defense cooperation between Israel and the United Arab Emirates will still likely expand based on a shared interest to create regional alliances to counter Iran. Despite internal opposition from the country’s powerful nationalist and right-wing factions, Israel’s foreign intelligence service Mossad has also been pushing for the country to upgrade its defense ties with the United Arab Emirates.
The United Arab Emirates has previously expressed interest in purchasing Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, which Israel often seeks to export to both bolster its defense industry, as well as broaden the capacity of other near countries to potentially offset the ballistic missile threat from Iran. Compared with the sale of F-35s, the defense system would be a less politically controversial in Israel, as it could not immediately be used against the Israelis.
In a sight of deepening security cooperation, Mossad head Yosi Cohen visited the United Arab Emirates on Aug. 18, where he spoke with the country’s national security advisor in a public setting.
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