Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed reports the US will sell stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates as part of the agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the Gulf nation, tweeting that they are “completely fake news.”
Netanyahu was responding Tuesday to a report in one of the country’s leading newspapers alleging the existence of a “secret clause” in Israel’s deal to normalize relations with the UAE – one that would allow the UAE to buy billions of dollars in advanced military hardware from the US, including drones, F-35 stealth fighters and other weaponry.
The story raised hackles in Israel because of the potential threat to Israel’s military superiority in the region. Israel has long opposed sales of strategic weapons systems to other countries in the Middle East and repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility in the weeks before the normalization deal was reached.
In Washington, an official at the White House’s National Security Council directed CNN to the written announcement of the deal, which contains no clauses or references to weapons deals. “The deal is the joint statement we released on Thursday,” the official said, referring to the 556-word statement on the White House website.
In other corners of the US capital, reports of the alleged deal were met with surprise.
Officials in the State Department office that handles US arms sales to foreign countries were startled by the reports, two State Department officials said, adding that if there is any such agreement, they had not been briefed on it.
If there were a sale to the UAE, the State Department would be in charge of overseeing the process. During that process, which requires congressional approval to finalize, the US must ensure Israel retains its qualitative military edge in the region, a requirement written into US law in 2008. The State Department directed inquiries to the White House.
On Capitol Hill, Republican and Democratic aides said relevant Hill committees have not been notified about a deal of this nature and don’t have any new transfers to the UAE before them for review at this time.
Netanyahu’s office backed up his tweet with a lengthy statement categorically denying the deal included any understanding of US arms sales to the UAE.
“The historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates did not include Israel’s consent to any arms deal whatsoever between the United States and the UAE,” the statement said. “From the outset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed the sale of F-35s and other advanced weaponry to any country in the Middle East, including Arab countries that have peace agreements with the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s rebuttal follows a story in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, which said UAE Crown Prince and de-facto leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan had demanded a clause be included in the agreement that would enable the Emirates to buy billions of dollars worth of F-35 fighter jets, drones and other advanced weaponry. The report cited unnamed US and Emirati officials.
The US, Israel and the UAE announced the plan to normalize relations August 13. Since then, phone lines have been opened between the two countries and business deals announced.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who’d only just been released from hospital following back surgery, decided the story warranted a press conference. He said the proliferation of the F-35 was “not good for Israel,” adding: “We need to talk to the Emiratis, to the Americans, and make sure our security interests are being upheld.”
The reports triggered widespread reaction for several reasons.
First, there’s the way the UAE-Israel deal was done. Unusually for an agreement of this nature, Netanyahu kept his foreign minister and defense minister (who just happen to be from rival parties) in the dark, telling Israeli media he did so at the request of the US.
According to Israeli newspaper reports, the first time the two ministers heard about Israel agreeing to suspend plans to annex parts of the West Bank in exchange for normalization with the UAE was when the agreement was announced.
An ideal drone customer
Second is the advanced weaponry itself. The UAE is seen as an ideal drone customer and was the client some US officials cited as a potential beneficiary, following the recent easing of the drone export regulations.
Some US defense officials have also expressed interest in getting the UAE the F-35 after Turkey was kicked out of the program, leaving more than 100 jets without a customer. The UAE military is seen as potentially more capable of integrating and operating the advanced aircraft, as opposed to other regional militaries, such as Saudi Arabia.
The third reason the story has caught hold may be an August 14 interview that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gave to NPR. Asked if the UAE-Israel deal would mean Abu Dhabi would now get hold of advanced American weaponry, he replied, somewhat cryptically: “The more the Emirates becomes a friend of Israel, becomes a partner with Israel, becomes a regional ally of the United States, I think obviously that alters the threat assessment and could work out to the Emirates’ benefit on that issue.”
And finally, there is Netanyahu’s statement, which indicates that Israel repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of advanced arms sales to “any country in the Middle East” in July and August – and that the prime minister himself had told Friedman they would not be acceptable.
“In his 7 July conversation with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Prime Minister Netanyahu was explicit in Israel’s opposition to the sale of F-35s and other advanced weaponry to any country in the Middle East, including those with peace agreements with Israel,” the statement said.
“On 8 July, the Prime Minister sent a letter – via Ambassador Friedman – to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which he reiterated that Israel’s position remains unchanged even following the reaching of peace agreements,” the statement continued.
It goes on to say that on August 3, at Netanyahu’s direction, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer met with Pompeo and once more “underscored Israel’s opposition to the sale of F-35s and other advanced weapons systems to any country in the Middle East.”
CNN’s Betsy Klein and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report