President Donald Trump listens as Jared Kushner speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.

President Donald Trump listens as Jared Kushner speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Selling F-35s to the Middle East was Never Going to be Easy

To do it, and preserve Israel’s advantage, Trump must reinvigorate the consultative arms sales process with Congress.

This week’s White House ceremony to mark the normalization of relations between Israel and two Gulf Arab nations, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, marks an important chapter in Israel’s quest for peaceful ties with its Arab neighbors. But will it open a new chapter in U.S. military relations with the Gulf states?

Many in Arab capitals think so. Their decision to normalize relations reflects a growing strategic convergence with Israel — against Iran, Islamic extremism, and further U.S. withdrawal from the region — that has been underway for a decade. Now they see the potential for getting more sophisticated U.S.-made weapons, as American negotiators reportedly expressed willingness to do.

The problem, of course, will be how to square this ambition with the U.S. legal commitment to maintain Israel’s military advantage, known as its Qualitative Military Edge, or QME. As two officials who during the Obama administration worked for years with the Israelis, our Gulf partners, and Congress on the tricky terrain of arms sales and QME, we can attest it can be done. But it will not be easy — and because of the short-sighted way the Trump administration has handled other arms sales, the task is only harder. 

The question of how normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel will impact its QME has already sparked considerable controversy. For years Emirati officials have wanted to buy the F-35, a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft of which Israel is the only regional partner (and only among six globally) to procure. The idea of an Arab state acquiring the F-35 was a complete non-starter absent normalization. It’s possible now, but only marginally more so. 

Already, Israeli leaders have had to issue denials about secret promises made about its new Gulf partners acquiring the F-35 or any other sophisticated arms, and some members of Congress have expressed their opposition to such sales. Yet the Trump administration is reportedly pressing forward, raising the question of how it will handle QME

Here is where the trouble starts. The idea that all U.S. sales in the Middle East should be evaluated for their impact on Israel’s security stretches back decades and has been embraced by both Democratic and Republican administrations.  In 2008, Congress codified the requirement in law, defining QME as ensuring that Israel could alone handle any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors.

Providing direct security assistance is one way the U.S. helps maintain Israel’s QME, which is why in 2016 the Obama administration made the largest ever single pledge of U.S. military aid, totaling $38 billion over 10 years. But just as important is a careful evaluation of every potential arms sale to other Middle East partners for their potential impact on Israel’s QME.

This may sound simple, but it is a complicated, laborious process requiring close coordination with Congress done in good faith. Under the 2008 law that codified QME, notifications of sales to the Middle East must include a detailed analysis of their impact on Israel’s edge. Under prior administrations, congressional oversight committees were consulted to help ensure the potential sale was in the U.S. interest and earned the greatest possible support. The process was hardly perfect, but it worked.

That cannot be said today. Under the Trump administration, the consultative relationship with Congress regarding arms sales has broken down. Unable to get lawmakers’ assent for several sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE over objections to the support for the war in Yemen, the Trump team implausibly declared an “emergency” and approved such sales without congressional notification. The Trump administration has insisted that was a one-time use of such authority, but the damage has been done. Many in Congress are still outraged by what they consider a procedural end-run made in bad faith. So the prospects for any future sales aren’t good. For the administration to salvage any chance of success, it should do something it will find especially hard: take a page from the Obama administration and reinvigorate the robust consultative process regarding QME with both Congress and Israel.

Despite the folklore that the Obama administration’s relationship with Israel was uniquely strained, the two sides engaged in continuous high-level security discussions, visits, and official dialogues (which we both participated in) where senior officials from the State Department, Defense Department, and the intelligence community would meet with their Israeli counterparts to discuss regional developments and develop a shared understanding of the threats that Israel faced, and the capabilities required to meet them. Such intensive consultations allowed us better understanding of Israel’s security concerns and how to evaluate the best ways to address them. And it enabled the completion of several of the largest arms sales in U.S. history – such as the sale of F-15 fighter jets and “standoff” missiles to Saudi Arabia and UAE – while adhering to the law for Israel’s advantage. 

However, as we know from experience, this process takes longer than a few weeks or a few months. It requires reestablishing intimate discussions on Israel’s security, not just in the person of a single senior official operating from the White House, but up and down the U.S. foreign policy and defense establishments. It also requires treating Congress as more than a rubber stamp. A future administration has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust with Congress about its role on arms sales. 

While the normalization of relations between Israel and more of its Gulf neighbors is good news for a region that needs some, it would be wrong to think the hard part is over. For if the U.S. hopes to deepen its defense relations with Arab states while maintaining Israel’s QME, the most difficult days still lie ahead. 

Derek Chollet is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, and an advisor to Beacon Global Strategies. He served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 2012-2015. He is also a former Defense One contributor.

Andrew J. Shapiro is a founder and managing director of Beacon Global Strategies. He served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs from 2009-2013. BGS advises several American defense companies on issues relating to foreign policy but the views expressed here are the authors own.