America's fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter continues to play a key role in U.S. policymaking in the Middle East and overshadows recent peace deals between Israel and the Gulf States. U.S. allies in the region want the game-changing aircraft but only Israel currently is building squadrons using the plane. Turkey, a partner in the program, has angered Washington by acquiring Russia's S-400 anti-aircraft system. On October 23, the U.S. Department of Defense condemned Turkey's October test of the Russian system which the Pentagon fears could be used by Moscow to get access to information about the F-35. Now reports indicate that Israel is not opposed to F-35s being sold to the United Arab Emirates.
The complex discussions about the F-35s and possible sales to the Gulf are tied to Israeli domestic politics. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed for improved relations with the Gulf, but he has also done so largely without coalition partners over the last ten years in power, controlling Israel's foreign policy himself. A coalition deal earlier this year, after three elections, led Netanyahu to work with his rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, who became the head of Israel's defense.
Gantz has accused Netanyahu of secretly agreeing to U.S. sales of the F-35 to Abu Dhabi while Netanyahu has denied the claims. Gantz met his U.S. counterpart Mark Esper on October 22 and signed a declaration confirming American commitment to Israel's Qualitative Military Edge (QME). This is a key part of Israel's security policy and the country's defense establish is beholden to it. It is part of the Israeli defense relationship with America which also includes a ten-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU.) Under the MoU, Israel works with the United States on joint programs such as work on missile defense. For instance, Israel also recently supplied the U.S. military with the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Israeli arms purchases from America, such as the fifty F-35s that Israel has already agreed to buy, and Israeli technology that plays a key role in U.S. weapons systems, including helmets for the F-35, are all part of the way Israel and America are today knitted together in defense methods. In addition, a third drill between American and Israeli pilots using F-35s took place this month.
The controversy about the potential F-35 deal with the UAE is not about qualitative military edge. Even if the deal is approved it will take years for the first F-35s to be delivered to Abu Dhabi and even then, the country might not acquire very many. In fact Israel's new peace agreement with the UAE shows the countries could be key allies. F-35s, as fifth generation aircraft, work best together because they communicate well together and sponge up similar information using a multiplicity of sensors. This is why the F-35 issue became more a political football in Israel. It is more about Gantz claiming he has been sidelined in key discussions.
Now that Gantz has completed his discussions with Esper he has also released a joint statement with Netanyahu saying they don't oppose the F-35 sales. Gantz continues to say the defense establishment was not privy to any negotiations about these advanced weapon systems sales. Netanyahu has been criticized in Israel for his decision making. For instance, a Jerusalem Post editorial said he made side deals at the expense of the country. In the end it is not Netanyahu's decision to make, but U.S. President Donald Trump, facing an election, called Netanyahu and put the call on speaker for the press to hear, asserting that his opponent, Joe Biden, would not have been able to help with recent peace deals for Israel. In this respect the peace deals and the F-35s have all become linked to domestic politics in both countries.
However, the sales of F-35s will have long-term ramifications. Not only would they knit together Israel, the UAE and America as users of the aircraft to possible train together, but F-35 sales could mean controversy if Qatar also acquires the stealth fighter. Qatar has sought strategic dialogue with the United States and has asked to procure the aircraft. Qatar hosts American personnel at al-Udeid base and has helped broker talks with the Taliban. However, critics see Qatar as being too close to Iran and Turkey and having hosted Hamas members in the past. Also, Israel might be less happy seeing Doha acquire the F-35. The UAE and Saudi Arabia broke relations with Qatar in 2017. The UAE and United States began strategic dialogue in October. It would be difficult for Washington to sell the F-35 to the UAE and not Qatar, but Israel may oppose the Qatar sales, which could impact the UAE sales.
The whole discussion is made more complex by the upcoming U.S. elections and differing views in Washington on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar, Turkey and Iran, and what U.S. relations should be with all these countries. This creates a complex puzzle regarding the F-35s. Given its long pipeline of procurement, approvals and eventual operational context, it could be half a decade before the countries have squadrons in the air. For instance, the total number of F-35s Israel sought to acquire was still up for discussion in 2014 and the first plane didn't land until 2018. Israel's second squadron was only inaugurated in January 2020. That means any discussion of F-35s for the Gulf won't see too many planes there until after the 2024 U.S. elections. A lot can change by then.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.