U.S. Seeks to Sell Up to 50 F-35s to UAE for $10.4 Billion

The State Department notified Congress Thursday that it backs the proposed sale of as many as 50 F-35A fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates for $10.4 billion, according to four people familiar with the matter.

It’s the latest step in the Gulf nation’s efforts to secure the stealthy Lockheed Martin Corp. fighters, the most advanced U.S.-built aircraft, after it agreed to recognize Israel in an accord brokered by the Trump administration.

Under American law, Israel is guaranteed weapons needed to maintain its “qualitative military edge” over Arab nations. U.S. officials have said they can provide that assurance regardless of F-35 sales without specifying publicly what they would offer Israel.

Israel has committed to buy at least 50 F-35s and in 2017 declared the first of its planes operational.

Thursday’s alert to lawmakers on the Senate and House foreign policy committees was an informal notification that will be followed at some point by a formal, publicly released one which Congress will have 30 days to approve or reject.

Representative Eliot Engel, the outgoing head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that congressional approval was no sure thing. The New York Democrat has tangled with the Trump administration in the past over weapons sales to UAE and Saudi Arabia.

“Rushing these sales is not in anyone’s interest,” Engel said in a statement. In addition to citing concern about maintaining Israel’s edge, Engel said the F-35’s “technology also must be safeguarded from our greatest global adversaries. With Russia and China active in the region, the American people will require unimpeachable assurances that our most advanced military capabilities will be protected.”

Although the administration is following the letter of the law by submitting the initial paperwork, “there is bipartisan displeasure among long-serving members of Congress about what they perceive as disrespect for standard protocol and process in the blitzkrieg toward the F-35 sale,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Congress can oppose the sale, but that opposition could be overturned by a presidential veto. And while Israel’s government signaled it wouldn’t stand in the way of a sale, “expect to see Israel give a wink behind-the-scenes to U.S. advocacy groups that are hawkish on Israeli defense to continue lobbying Congress to block it,” Fontenrose added.

The UAE embassy in Washington declined to comment on Thursday, and the Israeli embassy declined immediate comment. But the Israeli government said earlier that the U.S. was upgrading Israel’s military capability and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government wouldn’t oppose the sale of F-35s to the UAE.

Modernizing the Gulf nation’s military “is an important concern for us, it’s an important deterrent for the UAE,” UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Mohammed Gargash said in September.

President Donald Trump pushed for Israel and the UAE to reach the diplomatic accord the two sides signed at the White House last month, along with separate agreements between the Jewish state and Bahrain and Sudan. The U.S. administration has predicted that more nations will join what the U.S. bills as a “peace process” between Arab nations and Israel.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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