Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center and editor of InFocus Quarterly, spoke to participants in an October 30 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the U.S. administration's sale of F-35 jet fighters to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the security implications for Israel.
For over a half century, U.S. administrations have made a security commitment to maintain Israel's Qualitative Military Edge (QME), defined and codified under U.S. law as "Israel's ability to counter and defeat credible military threats from any individual state, coalition of states, or non-state actor while sustaining minimal damage or casualties."
The recent U.S. agreement to sell advanced F-35 jets to the UAE in the wake of its normalization of relations with Israel raises an important question, said Bryen. "Is UAE permanently out of the group of individual states or coalition of states that QME refers to? Can other states get out?"
In 1981, Ronald Reagan's sale of AWAC's to Saudi Arabia met great pushback from Israel and its supporters. Reagan was concerned about Soviet interference in the region and Iranian threats to the free flow of oil from the Arab gulf states, and he saw the sale of the AWACs to the Saudis as countering both.
However, noted Bryen,
Israel and its defenders saw Saudi Arabia as participating [financially] in all of the Arab states' wars against Israel; exerting pressure on countries that had diplomatic ties with Israel; ... mobiliz[ing] all of the Arab world ... against the Camp David Accords; [pushing for] a boycott of Egypt; ... [and] bankrolling the PLO.
In the end, "Reagan won, and that should be a lesson."
The Arab gulf states posture toward Israel has changed much since the 1980s. Israel's recent normalization of relations with the UAE and Bahrain followed years of warming sub rosa ties with Saudi Arabia and other Arab gulf states. Few Israelis today see them as potential adversaries.
Public statements by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz emphasize the singular threat posed to Israel posed by Iran, "not any credible combination of likely military threats" from other countries, said Bryen. "The coalition of states in the Gulf that Israel used to see as potentially buying up rafts and rafts of Western military technology in order to use it on Israel ... no longer appears to be the threat now for Israel. Certainly, it doesn't for the United States either."
"Qatar is an exception to that rule," Bryen said, "Because Qatar carries water for Iran," it cannot be considered "removed from any potential coalition of states" that could pose a threat to Israel. Although Qatar has good relations with the U.S. in general, it's conceivable that the emirate could use American military technology against Israel or share it with Iran.
Significantly, the Trump administration has signaled its intention to match F-35 sales to the UAE with other measures to bolster Israel's QME. Bryen said that the U.S. plans to "accelerate the delivery of weapons" Israel is already slated to purchase; that there "appears to be a decision to sell Israel top of the line bunker buster bombs," which Israel has sought for years to take out Iranian nuclear sites if need be; and that "it appears [Israel] will get precision guided missiles and direct access to U.S. satellite imagery."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.