The United Arab Emirates long sought the US-made F-35 fighter but has soured on the deal. Image: Handout/USAF

Israel and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) historic peace deal involved a high stakes game of give and take.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government agreed to indefinitely suspend plans to annex the settled parts of the West Bank. Meanwhile, as an inducement for Abu Dhabi, the US has agreed to provide it with F-35 fighter jets.

This was a serious consideration for the UAE, as the nation has attempted to gain approval for the sale of the jets since 2011. US President Barack Obama’s administration refused. While Donald Trump’s government has been more willing to consider the deal, the UAE has been concerned that Congress would not approve it.

Therefore, it was hoped that the peace deal would smooth the process.

The F-35 is now considered the most advanced fighter available and grants a significant operational advantage to any air force utilizing the system properly. Israel has had operational F-35s since 2017 and is transitioning to make the jets its main fighter aircraft within the next few years.

According to reports, Netanyahu had agreed to the sale and UAE and Israeli officials were scheduled to appear in a photo-op with their Emirati and American counterparts.

However, significant push-back has caused a change of heart for a prime minister easily swayed by public opinion. Many in Israel believe it is to the advantage of the Jewish state to maintain a situation where only it deploys the advanced jets.

An Israeli F35 I takes part in a multinational air defence exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 11, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jack Guez

As a result of opposition from the Defense Ministry and some Likud ministers, Netanyahu renewed his government’s opposition to selling US-made F-35s to other countries in the region, “including Arab countries that make peace with the State of Israel.”

Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who is close to Netanyahu, said on Tuesday that Israel opposes the sale of the F-35 fighter jet to any country in the Middle East, including the UAE.

“We oppose the sale of even one screw of one plane of the stealth fighters to any country in the Middle East, if we have peace with them or not,” said the Minister for Settlement Affairs.

Israeli security doctrine is heavily based on its qualitative superiority over its neighbors and possible rivals. Its alliance with the US is a crucial component of maintaining that advantage.

This manifests in two ways. First, by obtaining the most advanced military technology from its patron. And second, by denying access to the fighters for its enemies and rivals.

Israel has often attempted to scuttle major arms deals involving Arab states, most famously in the early 1980s when it attempted to block an initiative to sell Saudi Arabia airborne early warning and control system jets.

Four Saudi fighter jets, which supported coalition forces in the fight against Daesh, come into land at Incirlik base in Adana, southern Turkey, on February 26, 2016. Photo: AFP/Ibrahim Erikan/Anadolu Agency

The logic behind this strategy is somewhat anachronistic. It is a relic of the days when Israel’s biggest nightmare was a doomsday scenario where it would have to fight off a conventional invasion involving the entire Arab world.

At the behest of Israel, the US Congress passed a law in 2008 legally enshrining the need to maintain Israel’s military advantage in the Middle East – known formally as its Qualitative Military Edge. This requires the sale of advanced weapons to Israel, but also at times depriving other regional actors of these systems as well.

Today, Israel’s relations with the Arab world are far more complex. It enjoys peace with three Arab States, including the UAE, and a tacit anti-Iranian alliance with several more.

There is a severe disagreement in the Israeli security services as to whether arms deals of this sort serve the Israeli national interest.

The Mossad has long been heavily invested in improving Israeli relations with Gulf States by cultivating a mutual anti-Iranian alliance. The brass of the intelligence agency reportedly considers the UAE and Saudi Arabia to be trustworthy allies who would use the latest technology capably in a manner that would buttress Israeli geopolitical interests.

The Mossad famously bungled the assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai in 2010, when the fake identities of the agents involved were revealed publicly. This led to a deterioration in UAE-Israeli relations, which the intelligence agency has worked hard to mend ever since.

The Defense Ministry has taken a more traditional position on the matter. While appreciative of the strategic value of closer relations with the Gulf States, they believe the foreign policy of the oil sheikhdoms is fickle and that they are infiltrated by pro-Iranian agents.

Soldiers of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

“There is concern here that advanced systems will end up in Iranian hands,” a defense ministry source told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

However, the source admitted that the ministry had in the past approved the sale of advanced systems to the UAE, including advanced spyware developed by the Israeli NSO Group.

The Israeli move to publicly oppose the sale has angered Abu Dhabi. The Emiratis seem to have been told that Netanyahu would not publicly oppose the deal. They apparently feel as though he has violated the deal with his objections.

Therefore, a planned trilateral meeting with the US and Israel last Friday was canceled to send a message, warning Israel from interfering in the deal.

Considering the close ties between the Trump administration and the UAE, as well as the importance of the deal as a Trump foreign policy success story, it is unlikely that the F-35 deal will not go through.

Indeed, even the Israeli opposition’s resistance appears to be half-hearted. If the Trump administration hopes to attract other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Bahrain into peace agreements with Israel, it must show it is able to fulfill its promises.

This would benefit Israel as well, as it hopes the process of normalization will gather momentum. Even Hanegbi, an opponent of the deal, admitted that Israel would be open to compensation if the sale were to go through.

“Even if there’s a chance that they won’t accept our position, they’ll find a way to strengthen our advantages, as they’ve done in the past,” the minister said, referring to sweetener packages offered to Israel after large arms deals between the US and its Arab allies.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was more specific about the type of compensation Israel would be looking for: “I assume the Americans are developing means to overcome ‘stealthiness.’ If they share that with us, it will be good.”

If so, the F-35 sale will almost definitely take place and the issue in Israel-UAE relations will be worked out, most likely by offering Israel access to yet more advanced weapons systems.

The shared interests of the UAE, Israel and the US transcend anachronistic quarrels over the Qualitative Military Edge. However, they should settle this issue as quickly as possible.

The opponents of Israeli acceptance into the Middle East, most notably Iran and Turkey, will wait to pounce on any cracks in this nascent alliance.