An Israeli Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter plane performs at an air show in 2017. (AFP)
The U.S. may sell F-35 stealth fighters to the United Arab Emirates, according to Israeli media.
If true, it would be Washington's reward to the UAE for that Persian Gulf nation's recent decision to normalize relations with Israel.
"U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is set to sell F-35 fighter jets and advanced drones to the UAE in a secret clause that was part of the agreement to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and the Gulf nation," says Israel's Ynet news site, citing anonymous U.S. and Emirati sources.
"The clause lifts long-standing Israeli opposition to the sale of the strategic weapons systems to other countries in the region," it says.
Within hours after the initial news report, the Israeli government denounced the report as "fake news."
"The peace agreement with the UAE does not include any clause of this kind, and the U.S. has made clear to Israel that it will always ensure that Israel has the qualitative advantage," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.
Since 1973, U.S. policy has been that Israel must always have better weapons than its neighbors.
Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, U.S. policy has been that Israel must always have better weapons than its enemies and neighbors, including U.S. allies that use American arms. While there has been occasional friction – such as the Reagan administration's 1981 decision to sell AWACS radar aircraft to Saudi Arabia despite Israel's opposition – that policy has mostly held true. Egypt and Jordan, for example, signed peace treaties with Israel: in return, they got American arms such as F-16 fighters and M-1 tanks, but not the most advanced models.
So would the U.S. sell its cutting-edge stealth fighter to an Arab nation that was an enemy – though never a particularly enthusiastic one – of Israel? First, the most important certainty in the Middle East right now is that there are no certainties. Just 10 years ago, could anyone have imagined that Syria would disintegrate, and that Iranian and Russian troops would be on the Golan Heights? Or that the Sunni Arab world would make friends with Israel as a defense against Shia Iran?
In a world turned upside down, it would be no surprise if the Trump administration had secretly agreed to sell F-35s to the UAE as an incentive for a peace deal. Nor would it be surprising if Israel, despite the obligatory public protests, ultimately accepted the F-35 sale.
Israel wants to make friends – or at least non-enemies – in the Arab world. Persian Gulf states like the UAE are small in size, sparse in population and dwarfed by the neighborhood hegemon Iran. They want to take advantage of Israeli technological prowess – and perhaps a discreet Israeli military umbrella against Iranian aggression. The players in this deal have an incentive to make it work.
But as always in the Middle East, the devil is in the details. For example, the F-35 has so far only been offered to the U.S. and its NATO partners, as well as close U.S. allies like Israel, Japan and South Korea. In fact, Israel was given special permission to customize its F-35 Adir variant with features like extra fuel tanks and Israeli-designed software.
How advanced would the UAE's F-35s be? In Israeli eyes, today's Arab friend could be tomorrow's enemy. There is no way that Israel will acquiesce to UAE F-35s without technological restrictions.
Also, if the UAE can get stealth fighters in return for making peace with Israel, then what about the other Arab states? There are reports that Bahrain and Oman may normalize relations with Israel, and even a remote chance that Saudi Arabia – which has already asked for the F-35 — may do the same. How many Middle Eastern nations will receive advanced arms as a reward for a peace deal?
There is also the question of Iran's response. Iran is already nervous at the prospect of arch-enemy Israel dispatching stealth jets to destroy its nuclear sites. But Israel is a thousand miles away. Tehran will not be happy about Gulf State F-35s on its borders.
One can also ask whether the Middle East needs yet more advanced weapons. However, if a few stealth jets are the price of turning enemies into friends, it may be a good trade.
Michael Peck is editor of Uncommon Defense, a columnist at Forbes, and a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. Follow him at Twitter.