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Kushner’s Transactional Middle East Strategy is Already Showing Strain

News that Trump's son-in-law baked a sale of U.S weaponry into the UAE deal has been called a 'betrayal' by Israelis.
President Trump Trump Announces United Arab Emirates Will Reestablish Diplomatic Ties with Israel

On the heels of the historic normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, news leaked of a secret clause engineered by President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to sell billions of dollars worth of advanced U.S. weaponry, including drones and F-35 stealth fighter jets, to the United Arab Emirates. Israel has longed opposed sales of strategic weapons systems to other countries in the Middle East. 

State Department officials and aides from relevant congressional committees told CNN they had not been notified of such a deal, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the rumored sale as “fake news.

But after The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Emirati military was given a classified briefing on the F-35 fighter jet by administration officials, Trump confirmed the rumors. The president told reporters that the UAE wanted to buy “quite a few” stealth fighter jets, that they could afford to buy them, and that he was happy to sell them.

“They’d like to buy F-35s, we’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “It’s under review, but they made a great advance in peace in the Middle East.”

Kushner told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that the recent peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, “should increase the probability” of weapons sales to the UAE.

Trump and Kushner’s comments underline the transactional nature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy; the UAE did something the U.S. wants in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel, so the UAE should get something they want, namely American weapons. 

What is left unsaid in this rubric is how this will play in Israel. Not well, as it turns out.

The news has been called an “outrage” and a “betrayal” in the Israeli press.

Since the 1970s, the United States has not sold any advanced weapons systems to countries in the Middle East that could diminish Israel’s “qualitative edge.” Israel is the only country in the region to possess a fifth-generation fighter.

Israel opposes the sale of “even one screw” of the F-35 fighter jet to any country in the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said on Tuesday.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said at an Atlantic Council event Thursday, “the UAE has indicated that it wants F-35s. The first time we made this request was 6 years ago. We ought to get them. It should be easier to get them.” 

“We have been flying the most advanced model of the US-made F-16 for more than 15 years,” the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “Facing new threats and more sophisticated adversaries, the UAE will continue to upgrade and improve our air defense capabilities. The F-35 has been part of these plans for more than six years.”

The weapons the UAE wants to buy won’t shift the balance of power in the Middle East, and the F35s operating costs and maintenance are probably a lot more trouble than they’re worth.

“I think the F35s would be much more of an albatross for the Emiratis,” said Dan Grazier, military fellow at the Center for Defense Information. “It is just a fighter plane; it’s not a transformative weapon system like Lockheed Martin tries to tell you. It does everything every other fighter plane that came before it does.”

The Emiratis want to buy the planes to impress their neighbors with their shiny new weapons system, but they cannot afford to buy enough “to be effective” or to make “a huge impact on their overall military forces,” said Grazier.

If this is true, why are the Israelis up in arms?

“I believe Israel’s objections are just theater,” said Grazier. “Since the 1970s, or even before that, it has been an important part of the image of Israel to project that it is maintaining that quantitative advantage or edge over their potential adversaries. So anything that looks like it’s going against that harms the image they’ve been cultivating in the minds, not just of the Israeli people, but also of any potential adversaries in the Middle East.”

There’s another reason, too: Netanyahu kept the Israeli people, and his own government, in the dark. It appears from memorandum that Netanyahu knew about the proposed sales since July, but he didn’t even tell his Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“Not only did the prime minister not involve his defense minister and foreign minister, he left them completely in the dark—providing them with an update just moments before the official announcement. And if that wasn’t enough, he then gave an interview saying that he intentionally did not tell them because he didn’t trust them,” writes Yaakov Katz in the Jerusalem Post.  He adds:

“In a normal country where the system actually functions, a historic and important deal of this kind would have been discussed among the government’s senior leadership. Netanyahu would have held a meeting with his defense minister, foreign minister, IDF chief of staff and commander of the air force, would have told them of the peace talks, and informed them that it was likely that the UAE – which has asked repeatedly in recent years to purchase F-35 fighter jets – would receive US approval to purchase the advanced aircraft following the deal.”

None of that happened. 

In the U.S., the planned sale has been tightly guarded information. Aides and officials at the State Department and Congressional committees are confused and frustrated at still being in the dark, CNN reported last week.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press conference in Jerusalem on Monday that “the United States has a legal requirement with respect to [Israel’s] qualitative military edge. We will continue to honor that.”

“But we have a 20-plus year security relationship with the United Arab Emirates as well, where we have provided them with technical assistance and military assistance,” he said. “We will now continue to review that process to continue to make sure that we’re delivering them with the equipment that they need.”

For their part, the Emiratis are reportedly incensed by Netanyahu’s public denial and his vow to lobby Congress to oppose the sale, it was reported Monday. In retaliation, the United Arab Emirates cancelled a planned meeting with the U.S. and Israel over the possible sale of the F35s.