The normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an important breakthrough, consistent with the long-term, bipartisan goals of several U.S. administrations. As important, it also appears to have ended the possibility of Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, which President Trump foolishly put on the table earlier this year.
But the good news comes with a catch.
UAE leaders have made clear they believe that they received a commitment from the Trump administration to purchase the American-made F-35 aircraft. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, signaled as much when he told Fareed Zakaria on CNN that the normalization deal “should increase the probability” that the UAE’s longstanding request to purchase the aircraft will be approved.
The F-35 is our most sophisticated fighter aircraft, with unique stealth capabilities. It has only been approved for sale to the United States’ closest allies. Thanks to agreements reached by the Obama-Biden administration, Israel is acquiring 50 F-35s. The first of these arrived in Israel in 2016. President Obama and Vice President Biden made sure that Israel is the only air force in the Middle East to fly it, which guarantees Israel can retain its aerial dominance in this dangerous region.
That commitment is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy, as well as a legal obligation, to ensure that Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) over any competing military in the Middle East is maintained. If the United States sells F-35 aircraft to the UAE, Trump is dangerously eroding that edge.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly opposed this sale, as evidenced by his office’s statement that declared that, “The prime minister opposed selling the F-35 and advanced weaponry to any countries in the Middle East, including Arab states that make peace with Israel.”
He has denied allegations that he privately consented to these sales. In fact, press reports later revealed that Israel’s defense establishment was blindsided by this decision. In violation of longstanding practice, no consultations seem to have occurred between American and Israeli military experts on the impact of such a sale on Israel’s security, and — if it does go forward — any possible mitigating impacts.
Selling F-35 aircraft to the UAE raises a host of other thorny questions: How many F-35s will the deep-pocketed UAE acquire? What armaments and other capabilities will be provided with the plane? Will there be end-use restrictions on the UAE’s F-35s, not just against Israel, but in places such as Yemen and Libya, where the UAE air force has participated in local conflicts with scant regard for preventing civilian casualties?
But the biggest areas of concern relate to Israel’s security. In addition to the possibility that a future UAE government could be hostile to Israel, the UAE is the locus of thousands of regular Iranian travelers, including intelligence operatives, who will seek sensitive information about the F-35.
Then there is the question of precedent. On previous occasions, U.S. military equipment sold to one Arab state has eventually been sold to several others. Does selling the F-35 to the UAE set a precedent for other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt — closer to Israel and arguably less stable than the UAE — to acquire the same or similar aircraft?
The Trump administration seems clueless regarding the potential threat here and has shown no sign that any safeguards exist. Clearly, a more militarized region is not safer for Israel or for U.S. interests.
Peace cannot and should not be bought with war planes. The cause of encouraging other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel is significantly undercut by the UAE’s F-35 deal. Normalization with Israel cannot be a quid pro quo for access to advanced weapons. We do not want Israel’s other neighbors making similar linkages. Everyone knows how Trump’s “art of the deal” works.
Israel’s qualitative military edge is a precious asset, but it is fragile. It requires constant vigilance to maintain. But for Trump, everything is transactional, not based on principle. He sees arms sales purely in commercial terms without consideration of the foreign policy implications. His reckless plan to sell our most advanced weaponry to the Emiratis while neglecting the views of Israeli security experts plays too fast and loose with the security of our closest regional ally.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have each stated clearly that their commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable. In that spirit, the United States should not undertake any decisions regarding weapons sales to Arab states, including those that normalize relations with Israel, to prevent any erosion of its qualitative military edge.
That is how we ensure Israel’s security, not by plying other Middle Eastern countries with the unique capabilities that should be reserved only for Israel’s use.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz represent Florida’s 23rd congressional district in the U.S. House. She is running for re-election.