Permit’s price: for Israel to have another regional Air Force own the world’s premier fighter plane, its degraded qualitative edge should be otherwise restored and maintained

Negative or Negotiable? How an Israeli no could turn into a nod

Rather than veto the UAE’s F-35, compensate the Israel Air Force for its loss of monopoly

By Amir Oren

Summertime, and the living is easy. Frogs, rather than fish, are jumping, in the grass by the Yarkon river separating downtown Tel Aviv from its northern neighborhoods. Two friends are strolling along the bank. Suddenly, one of them challenges the other – a hundred bucks if you catch a frog and gulp it down. He does and gets paid. Easy money. The first guy regrets his losing proposition. Me too, he offers, eats frog, gets money back. Now they are back to square one, financially, but each with a frog in his belly.

Incidentally, there was once indeed a FROG – Free Rocket Over Ground – Russian-made (Luna) rocket, but this tall tale is used here to illustrate the Middle East arms race, as seen from Washington 70 years ago. There is no point in supplying planes and tanks to Arabs and Israelis, reasoned the Truman Administration, as the military build-up efforts will cancel each other out, draining much needed domestic budgets. Better they invest in roads not rockets, schools rather than submarines. The British and the French agreed. Thus was issued the 1950 Tripartite policy of refraining from selling arms to the Mideast.

Fast forward from Truman to Trump and the debate over the Emirati wish to buy a squadron or so of F-35’s, the world most advanced fighter, as part and parcel of the normalization process between the UAE and Israel. When first reported in Israel, last month, Binyamin Netanyahu denied that he agreed to lift Israel’s de-facto veto over this sale. His denial angered the Emiratis. The New York Times, based on its own sources, reported this week that Netanyahu had indeed privately consented to the sale before he publicly disassociated himself from it.

So what happened, and more to the point now, is there a way out of the impasse?

That old American-French-British embargo was broken almost immediately by the two European powers, and the Soviet Union used it to penetrate the Arab world through a Czech arms deal with Egypt from 1955 on. Yet the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations were reluctant to become major arms suppliers to Israel and its neighbors. The dam broke only after the 1967 war and the French decision to punish Israel by stopping the sale of fighters, missiles and missile-boats, while Britain reneged on its agreement to sell Israel Chieftain tanks.

Before the war, President Johnson was careful to balance the sale of A-4 Skyhawk attack planes and Patton tanks – those, through West Germany – to Israel by selling Pattons and F-104 fighters to Jordan. During the war, Jordan ignored its pledge to keep all tanks on the East Bank, away from Israel’s population centers, and consequently lost the West Bank. In his final days in the White House, Johnson made good on his promise to sell Israel F-4 Phantoms, the premier fighters of the time, in exchange for an Israeli commitment not to use them for nuclear missions it would not admit to be capable of, anyway.

Note the word “sell”. The F-4’s were not presents. The problem was the political permit. Israel would have to find the resources to buy the items thought essential to its survival.

This changed during and after the 1973 war, as Nixon sought and Congress agreed to pay the  $ 2.2 Billion bill of the emergency equipment airlifted to Israel. This was the first seed of what would become a forest of grants, with the State and Defense Departments reviewing and sometimes rejecting Israeli justifications for modernizing the IDF.

The other result of the Yom Kippur War was the move of Sadat’s Egypt from the Soviet to the American orbit. Moderate Arab countries claimed the need for Western arms. Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill set conditions. When Egypt signed its peace accord with Israel, it started standing in line right behind it, though for cash.

Combined, these developments gave rise to the new dogma of Qualitative Military Edge, or QME. It was based on the Israeli preference of quality over quantity – there was neither a manpower base for a dozen Army divisions nor budgetary stamina to sustain life cycle costs in Shekels – and on the premise that whatever Israel gets, the Arabs may get but not as good, not really state-of-the-art. In essence, there were military items for American, NATO (or major Non-Nato allies, such as Japan, Australia and South Korea) customers, which Israel got and even improved upon, and slightly lower export versions supplied to countries too close for comfort for Israel, though not considered confrontation states.

There are three permanent concerns regarding these sales to friendly Arab regimes. They may be ousted in favor of hostile ones, with Iran as an omen; they would serve as precedents for others in the region, with a trickle becoming a deluge; and the doctrine and tactics – the mind behind the machines – will leak to Israel’s enemies, be used against it and serve to counter its own way of war.

As against these arguments, one hears that better the Americans supply arms and have some control over their use, lest the Russians and Chinese do it; that sophosticated local militaries enable an America First policy of troop withdrawal; and of course, that it is good for the American defense industry – a strategic asset, with production lines remaining open and items less expensive to U.S. Armed Forces due to economy of scale – and the companies’ employees and shareholders. Politically, it appeals to all levels, from President on down to Senator, Governor and Congressman.

With that in mind, and Netanyahu as grateful as he is to Donald Trump weeks before the November elections, the Prime Minister’s predicament is obvious. He cannot afford to look as if he is helping Trump and himself at the expense of Israel’s security, against the best professional advice of the esteemed Israel Air Force – first in the workd with initial operational capability, some three years ago – insisting on F-35 monopoly. Yet he badly needs the credit of adding another Arab country to the circle of peace, without paying a territorial price. This last argument is sleight of hand. Without Egypt and its peace for Sinai, there would have been neither Jordan nor UAE. A territorial price was paid in freezing whatever annexation plans were hatched. And the Emiratis do not want any real estate – they want F-35’s. No planes, no peace, and they apparently had reason to believe Netanyahu’s OK is an oil barrel waiting to be drilled.

Enters Trump, the self-proclaimed ultimate dealmaker. The problem: how to reconcile the sale of this most advanced weapon system with keeping the commitment to Israel’s military superiority. The solution: rather than giving the Emiratis less, giving Israel more. Compensating it for whatever edge it fears losing.

So the road from a firm no to a final nod, from a negative attitude to a negotiable one, could go through an enhancement of the military aid package legislated for Israel when Barack Obama was winding down his second term, totalling $ 38 Billion over a decade, not counting missile defense. Most of this money, and down the years all of it, is spent within the United States, subsidizing Lockheed Martin, Boeing and thousands of smaller vendors.

If Trump and Congress were to raise the annual sum, say to $ 5 Billion, the Israeli Air Force – which must priortize its wish list and contend with Army, Navy, Intelligence and other needs – may change its calculus. Perhaps more F-35’s and F-15E’s than projected under the current budget, or some other combination (helicopters and Special Forces’ V-22’s are also in the mix) would satisfy it. Everything has its price and almost nothing in the non-nuclear world is taboo.

In another era, elected officials, even those friendliest towards Israel, would have turned down such as an option as being too greedy. No other nation gets so much American aid. But with COVID-19 pushing Washington to look for ways to stimulate the economy through grants to employers, this could be a reasonable compromise.