Pro-Israel think-tank signals support for US F-35 sale to UAE

Influential Washington non-profit indicates backing for US-UAE deal for the cutting edge stealth fighter jet amid a debate on Capitol Hill

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A pro-Israel group with close ties to the US Congress has signalled support for the Donald Trump administration's proposed sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates as a debate rages on Capitol Hill about the transaction.

The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, on Wednesday highlighted an op-ed outlining a work-around to placate pro-Israel groups concerned about Israeli military superiority in the Middle East – the same day a group of US senators introduced expedited legislation to block the sale.

Israeli army Major General Yaakov Amidror, a distinguished fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and the former head of Israel's National Security Council, penned an op-ed in the Defense Post that proposed multiple solutions to pave the way for the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE while allowing Israel to maintain its Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region.

“Through joint dialogue, there are creative ways to protect Israel’s QME while allowing the UAE to obtain the jets,” wrote Mr Amidror. “For instance, some of the F-35’s software systems can be reserved for Israeli use, giving it a leg up in a potential fight against the same hardware.”

“The US could also elevate Israel’s information-sharing clearance to overcome classification barriers that impede co-operation; pursue joint R&D ventures with Israel, akin to the development of the Arrow and David’s Sling missile defence systems; and frontload defence assistance that has already been agreed to under the 10-year memorandum of understanding that Washington and Jerusalem reached in 2016.”

Israel is currently the only country in the region to possess the F-35 fighter aircraft. However, the Trump administration proposed selling the fighter jets to the UAE, several years after its initial request. After the signing of the Abraham Accord and the establishment of relations between the two countries, the sale of the F-35s was supported by the Trump administration.

Several notable members of Washington’s tight-knit foreign policy community have also come out in favour of the sale, including former CIA Director David Petraeus.

Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has invoked Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge in expressing his opposition to President Trump’s proposed $23 billion sale of 50 F-35 Lightening II aircraft and other defence systems to the UAE.

Mr Menendez joined his colleagues Chris Murphy and Rand Paul – a Democrat and Republican respectively – in introducing legislation on Wednesday that would allow him to force a vote blocking the sale on the Senate floor.

Under Senate rules, Mr Menendez would only need a simple majority of 51 votes to block the proposed sale.

Several notable members of Washington's tight-knit foreign policy community have also come out in favour of the sale, including former CIA Director David Petraeus

President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition team declined to comment on whether the president-elect supported Mr Menendez’s legislation.

Since Democrats control the House, they would only have to gain the support of a few Senate Republicans to advance the legislation, as they did last year in a failed bid to block the Trump administration’s $8 billion emergency arms sale to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

However, Congress did not have the two-thirds majority necessary to override Mr Trump’s veto, allowing that sale to proceed.

"There are two staunchly pro-Israel camps weighing in on this issue in Congress," Foundation for Middle East Peace president Lara Friedman told The National. "One camp objects to the sale of F-35s to the UAE, based on concerns that it will erode Israel's Qualitative Military Edge."

“The other supports the sale, arguing that Israel’s QME post-sale can and should be retained through various kinds of US military support for Israel above and beyond current levels.”

To that end, Senate Republicans included a certification requirement on the F-35 sale in the foreign aid spending bill they introduced earlier this month. The bill would require the secretary of state to certify that the F-35 sale “does not diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge” and that it “poses no vulnerabilities to US military systems and technology”.

Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Senate foreign aid panel, enjoys close ties with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, which gave him an award for distinguished service last year.

And in the House, Democrat Bradley Schneider has introduced a bill that would require the president to consult with the Israeli government “for information regarding Israel’s qualitative military edge” before making the legal certification necessary to proceed with arms sales in the region.

But that bill, which has three Republican co-sponsors, would not necessarily block the F-35 sale to the UAE given the most recent positions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

The UAE embassy in Washington tweeted a reminder on Thursday that both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz issued a joint statement in October where they agreed not to oppose advanced military sales to the UAE because "the US is upgrading Israel's military capability and is maintain Israel's qualitative military edge."