The F-35 Triangle: America, Israel, the United Arab Emirates
The Middle East has distinguished itself by serving up unpleasant shocks for decades: the Six-Day War in 1967, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the “summer” war in 2006 between Israel and Hizballah, and the capture by Islamic State fighters of much of northern Iraq in 2014. Combined with the dismal results of America’s entanglement in Iraq and the mostly disappointing fallout of the movement once hailed as the “Arab Spring,” the region has given Americans little cause for optimism. But this summer the White House surprised the world with a hopeful piece of Middle Eastern news: The United Arab Emirates and Israel would normalize relations, something that was once unimaginable.
The move has the potential to shift regional dynamics significantly and deepen what were heretofore covert ties across the full spectrum of civilian sectors from business to science to agriculture and even space. The Emirati-Israeli agreement builds upon years of “under the table” cooperation between security and intelligence professionals driven toward strategic alignment by a shared perception of the major regional threat — Iran.
For the United Arab Emirates, only the third Arab country to establish relations with Israel, the U.S. sweetener appears to be a commitment to sell it F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, as well as other advanced weaponry long sought by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. And there is precedent for American military deliverables in exchange for peace: When Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, it secured the second largest military aid package in the Middle East after Israel, which continues today. When Jordan made peace with Israel in 1994, the announcement came along with debt relief and the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft — and, like Egypt, Jordan remains a top recipient of American assistance. For both countries, their peace treaties with Israel are critical factors in the decades-long bipartisan support in the United States for continuing aid and security cooperation.
Reactions to Emirati acquisition of the F-35 have largely focused on whether Israel will support such a sale and the related requirement in U.S. domestic law to ensure Israel’s military superiority against all other countries in the Middle East. The longstanding policy term, later codified in law, is “qualitative military edge.” From the Emirati point of view, if they have entered into full diplomatic relations with Israel — with a promised “warm peace,” in the words of Emirati officials — and both countries share the same threat perspective, then Israel should have confidence that these advanced weapons will not be turned against it and should therefore not object to the sale. Moreover, unlike Egypt and Jordan, the United Arab Emirates has never attacked Israel.
This Tuesday, as leaders from both governments attend a signing ceremony at the White House, close observers will be looking for signals that the F-35 sale is moving forward with Israeli consent. But this narrow focus misses the bigger question: Beyond the president and his closest advisors, is there sufficient support for this sale in Washington? As former government officials serving in the State and Defense Departments as well as in Congress, we are confident that the process going forward will be messy and time-consuming, specifically because the current case breaks precedent in so many ways.
Protecting Israel’s military edge is only one of a series of factors that will be considered by policymakers in the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government. Equally if not more critical is the Emirati record of use and protection of other U.S. weapons, and how the sale fits into the broader strategic context of American national security and foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. Put a different way, selling the F-35 to the United Arab Emirates would say much more about the Washington’s partnership with Abu Dhabi than it would about the evolving Emirati-Israeli relationship.
Security and Business
Selling the F-35 to a country ought to be a signal that the United States has the highest measure of confidence in that country’s warfighting capabilities, decision-making on the use of force, and commitments to protecting sensitive technology. The Emirati record on each of these issues does not, however, inspire the highest confidence. The record is mixed.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a game-changer. There is nothing comparable on the global arms market from any other seller. It is the Pentagon’s largest, most expensive procurement program and, to paraphrase one defense official, “thinking about it as the next generation of fighter aircraft sold to other Arab governments does not do justice to the technological paradigm shift” it represents. The F-35 is stealth, flies at supersonic speeds, and features on-board sensors that provide the pilot with a comprehensive view of the battlespace, extending for hundreds of miles. One article notes that “F-35s can see and kill an enemy fighter, radar site or missile battery before [the aircraft is] detected” — in short, the F-35 will provide decisive military advantage to the warfighter in combat. In deciding to export the F-35 to a foreign country, Washington should be confident that the sale meets both business and national security interests.
Arms transfers are foreign policy. When we transfer a system or a capability to a foreign partner, we are affecting regional — or foreign internal — balances of power; we are sending a signal of support; and we are establishing or sustaining relationships that may last for generations and provide benefits for an extended period of time.
U.S. competitors in the global arms export industry — particularly Russia and China — also leverage arms sales, but by and large with no strings attached for their use. Both governments use arms sales to challenge U.S. market dominance and to undermine American partnerships in the region.
Against this backdrop of great-power competition through arms sales, adversary governments are on the ground in the Middle East every day working with foreign militaries in proximity to the U.S. systems and their workforce. The opportunities for illicit theft, or deliberate transfer, of sensitive defense technology from the F-35 are serious, and require partners with demonstrated records of protecting U.S. weapons systems. The Pentagon’s 2020 China Power Report included a section noting that China has likely considered building a military logistics facility in the United Arab Emirates to support its military operations. Such a base would unquestionably play a role in China’s strategy to undermine the U.S. military’s warfighting edge, and serve as a platform for continuing China’s practice of defense espionage. The Emirati ability to guard the F-35 is thus a matter of protecting both the United States and its partners’ investment, as well as the lives of the U.S. servicemembers who will be flying them in combat. There is inherent risk in transferring a weapon system to another country, but in the case of the F-35 in particular — given that there is nothing comparable on the global arms market — the United States should be highly confident that the United Arab Emirates can protect it before allowing such a transfer.
Reflecting a long-held U.S. policy view, during his nomination hearing Washington’s envoy to Abu Dhabi noted that the country “is a moderating and stabilizing force in one of the world’s most volatile regions.” The United Arab Emirates stands out among other militaries in the region for having contributed military forces to many U.S.-led coalitions since the first Gulf War — Kosovo (late 1990s), Somalia (1992), Afghanistan (since 2003), Libya (2011) and the anti-ISIL coalition (2014 to 2015). Indeed, Jared Kushner set a new precedent for framing the American-Emirati partnership when he effectively equated it with that of America and Israel, terming them comparably “special” during his most recent visit to the Middle East.
Yet Emirati regional policies have been the subject of increasing congressional concern in recent years, largely focused on the country’s actions in Yemen and Libya. Since the beginning the Saudi-led coalition’s 2015 intervention in Yemen, most congressional action focused on the Saudi role in the conflict and not the Emirati one. But in 2018, congressional concern peaked in response to Emirati plans to launch an offensive to seize the Yemeni port of Hudaydah. The Trump administration subsequently declined to provide military support for the Emirati operation, given the risks of worsening an already severe humanitarian crisis, concerns regarding the complexities of the proposed military operation, and the likelihood of mass civilian casualties. Humanitarian and human rights organizations have shed light on, and Congress has attempted to investigate, allegations of unauthorized Emirati transfers of U.S.-origin equipment to non-governmental groups in Yemen; torture of Yemeni detainees in Emirati-run facilities; Emirati violations of the U.N. arms embargo in Libya in cooperation with Russia; and Emirati complicity in civilian casualties from air and drone strikes in Libya. In both Yemen and Libya, Abu Dhabi has not succeeded in leveraging its robust military investments toward political processes that would end the conflicts. In both contexts the divergent policies of the United States and United Arab Emirates — including use of military force, conduct in combat, and utilization of U.S. defense articles — should be considered as part of the F-35 deliberations.
The View from Congress
The decision to sell a weapon to any foreign country requires consultation within the executive branch of government, and between it and Congress. Legally, the administration is required to notify Congress of the intent to sell a weapon valued at $14 million or more, which triggers a 30-day “notification clock.” During that 30-day period, it is the prerogative of Congress to hold briefings and consultations with the State and Defense Departments on all aspects of the sale, including a country’s readiness to protect the U.S.-origin defense technology on the weapon, the country’s record on responsibly and effectively using previously sold weapons, the foreign military’s adherence to certain standards in its conduct of war, how the weapons sale fits into U.S. foreign policy objectives and protects U.S. national security, and, in the Middle East, the implications for Israel’s military superiority. If the 30-day notification period expires without congressional action, the executive branch is authorized to move forward with contract negotiations for the weapons sale.
Members of Congress can place temporary “holds” on proposed weapons sales if their questions and concerns are not adequately addressed by the administration or if, after a thorough review, the risks to U.S. national security are deemed too high. The executive branch has traditionally honored these holds and worked with congressional members to address concerns. It should be noted, however, that Congress faces an enormously high bar in preventing any weapon sale, as this requires both the Senate and the House of Representatives to pass Resolutions of Disapproval with two-thirds of both chambers voting for the resolution in order to override a presidential veto — all within 30 days. With a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a Republican majority in the Senate, it is unlikely that the Congress could muster the required majorities in both chambers to block a potential sale of the F-35.
But focusing only on legally required steps for congressional approval to sell weapons misses the larger picture — it is far more desirable for high-profile arms sales to have congressional support. Lack of bipartisan support invites legislative actions to slow successive sales down and even hostage-taking on unrelated issues. Moreover, a rancorous public debate over a given sale can taint future sales and even jar the bilateral relationship. The 1981 debate over the Reagan administration’s decision to sell Saudi Arabia the E-3A Sentry Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft was just such a moment.
Since the Yemen war’s inception in 2015, members of Congress have raised concerns about the conflict and U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, in which Abu Dhabi was a partner and to which it contributed forces until withdrawing in the summer of 2019. These concerns, and the Trump administration’s refusal to address them, culminated in Congress mandating a report on steps taken by both governments to reduce civilian casualties and comply with laws and agreements governing the use of U.S.-origin weapons — indicating skepticism that either country was doing so. Moreover, there is an extensive record of congressional concern specifically with respect to arms transfers to members of the Saudi-led coalition. In response, in May 2019 the Trump administration declared an “emergency” in order to circumvent the 30-day congressional review period and push through weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This move deeply exacerbated executive-legislative tensions over arms sales, and sets the stage for a White House-Congress showdown over whether selling the F-35 to the United Arab Emirates is in line with U.S. national security interests.
The View from Israel
As with congressional review, protecting Israel’s military superiority consists of both legal requirements and longstanding political and process steps that, while not mandated by law, have paved the way for decades of bipartisan congressional consent to arms sales in the Middle East, including of advanced fighter aircraft. The requirement to protect Israel’s “qualitative military edge” is enshrined in 2008 naval vessel transfer legislation, although it had been implemented as a matter of policy between Washington and Jerusalem since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Important elements of the 2008 law are “the ability [for Israel] to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states … while sustaining minimal damage and causalities, through the use of superior military means.”
Presumably, the United Arab Emirates and Israel entering into formal relations affirms that the former does not pose such a military threat. The Israeli perspective at the moment, however, has been complicated by the continuing murk over whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blessed the U.S. commitment to sell the Emirati government the F-35 — without the knowledge of his own defense minister. Tensions in Netanyahu’s fragile governing coalition and a larger uproar in Israel’s defense establishment have prompted an awkward pas de deux among American, Emirati, and Israeli officials. Netanyahu — responding to concerns raised by the Israeli defense establishment — stated emphatically during an Aug. 24 joint press conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he had not consented to any arms deal as part of normalization. Given Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump, it is safe to say that no one in either country finds this claim credible. The public spat over Israeli consent to Emirati acquisition of the F-35 escalated when Netanyahu publicly vowed to go to Congress in opposition to the sale, and the United Arab Emirates in response cancelled a planned meeting between the Israeli and Emirati ambassadors to the United Nations.
The challenge, legally speaking, for the Trump administration in making the case to sell the F-35 will be to demonstrate that Israel has “superior military means.” There is no single weapons system currently available for sale that meets that threshold. Thus, extensive discussions should be expected between Israeli and U.S. technical and military experts to agree on the appropriate mix of offsets to ensure Israel’s military superiority. The offsets may involve discussions of quantity (how many F-35s the Emiratis will acquire versus the Israelis), technical variations in the F-35 platform, or additional sales and assistance to Israel. This challenge is not insurmountable, but it will be time-consuming and extend pass the upcoming American electoral cycle. The November deadline is certainly animating all stakeholders in this sale, given that the election will usher in new members of Congress, and might also deliver a change in presidential administration and control of the Senate. These potential changes in American governance portend shifts in approach and support for the F-35 sale and negotiations on military offsets with Israel.
In the past, the process of military consultations with Israel on a given weapons system typically took several years of extensive defense shuttle diplomacy, completed before formally notifying Congress of the arms sale package. The standard for this level of consultation with Israel before moving forward with arms sales packages to others in the region was set by the Obama administration — first in 2011 with the sale of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, and later in 2013 with the sale of F-16 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates along with stand-off weapons to both the Saudis and the Emiratis. Concurrent with 2013 sales, the Obama administration negotiated a package for Israel to maintain its military edge that included V-22 Osprey aircraft, advanced refueling tankers, and anti-air defense missiles.
Typically, the White House does not endorse the sale of a sophisticated weapon to any country in the Middle East before completion of a rigorous technical evaluation, completed by Israeli and American technical experts. In this case, the Trump administration appears poised to accelerate the formal congressional notification process before the usual bilateral, technical Israeli-U.S. negotiation. The process is reversed from longstanding, though not legally binding, tradition: The Trump play is to rush the legally required steps through Congress before the November election, and negotiate policy and technical details later. Such a sequence constitutes a precedent-setting way of doing business for all parties involved: the Emiratis, Israelis, Americans, and the U.S. defense industry.
Though Israel has no legal right to block the United States from selling a weapon to another country in the Middle East, Israeli support is critical, particularly during the period of congressional notification. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will consult with the Israeli government, and will prefer to support a sale that earns a clear green light from the Israeli government. Members are likely be left unsatisfied by ambiguous and lukewarm Israel responses to the question of selling the F-35 to the Emiratis, precisely because technical talks have not yet begun. All parties risk being stuck between the divisive politics of the moment, and the deliberative, lengthy policy considerations that such arms transfer packages usually entail, opening the door to a further erosion of bipartisanship on a key issue of national security importance — the what, when, and how of a decision by the United States to provide advanced weapons systems to partner states in the Middle East.
The Price of Normalization
Today the focus is on politics and process: (1) the messy interplay of Emirati expectations for military hardware and elevated relationship status; (2) Israeli security concerns in tension with the desire for further regional integration; and (3) the Trump administration’s dangling of weapons sale inducements in exchange for a strategic foreign policy win.
Over the horizon, however, are questions of policy and strategy: Will the agreement set expectations for other governments in the region that strain the Israeli military superiority versus normalization balancing act?
Like the United Arab Emirates, many countries in the region already maintain robust “under the table” relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia among them. Given the American role in acting as midwife to the Emirati-Israel agreement, Arab capitals are closely following whether the United States will follow through on its apparent commitment to sell the F-35 (and assorted other high-end systems) to Abu Dhabi, and whether American deliverables are sufficiently compelling to consider bringing their own relations with Israel into the daylight. Each Arab government has a wish list for Washington — a mix of American policy changes, economic inducements, and defense articles. The historical record from Egypt to Jordan and now the United Arab Emirates — across administrations of both political parties — is that formal relations with Israel facilitate strategic consistency from Washington.
Conversely, Israel may be left pondering whether the F-35 and other military superiority-busting weapons are the new threshold to meet for subsequent normalization deals. Will Egypt and Jordan request the F-35 in light of their existing peace treaties with Israel? Will countries in closer geographic proximity, like Saudi Arabia, request the F-35 and additional advanced U.S. weapons as part of their normalization package? These questions raise two baskets of vital concerns: (1) the need to reframe the approach to maintaining Israel’s military edge as others in the region board the normalization train, and (2) the long-term stability of the countries acquiring ever more advanced weapons. For Israel, Iran and Turkey represent sobering examples in that regard — previously solid security partners within seemingly stable governance structures that became hostile.
Finally, there are larger geopolitical challenges and long-term risks to Israel’s military superiority in the region. The U.S. commitment to Israel’s security has both contributed to the Israel Defense Forces becoming the most effective fighting force in the region and served as a successful deterrent against state actors considering use of force against Israel. But that military edge risks eroding as Arab governments, whether blocked from purchasing certain weapons from the United States or in addition to acquiring them, turn to China, Russia, and other weapons exporters not obligated to maintain Israel’s military superiority. Competition in the Middle East between the United States and its adversaries is intensifying — particularly in the weapons sales arena — at the same time that a wave of normalization may shift from an aspirational to a realistic expectation.
Ostensibly, a trend of normalization with Israel removes some of the risks to its security and expands the aperture for cooperation with Arab governments against the shared threat of Iran. But if each normalization agreement brings new requests for ever more sophisticated U.S. military hardware, Washington may find itself in an escalating — and unsustainable — cycle of supplementing and upgrading support, technology, and other military offsets to Israel. In this mix, the Israeli and U.S. governments may soon find themselves at a strategic crossroads, compelled to redefine what Israel’s qualitative military edge means in this evolving 21st-century context.
Barbara A. Leaf is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014 to 2018.
Dana Stroul is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Previously, she covered the Middle East on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.