Israel Denies It Met With the UAE Over the F-35 Despite Growing Ties Between The Countries

Whether or not there was a specific meeting, the Emiratis are still eager to buy F-35s and assuage Israeli concerns about those potential purchases.

IAF

Israel has reportedly denied that it hosted a delegation from the United Arab Emirates to discuss issues related to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Reports of the meeting had been another indication of steadily improving ties between the two countries and the UAE’s continued interest in buying the stealthy jets.

On July 8, 2018, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had denied the gathering with Emiratis, a country that Israel does not have official diplomatic ties with, took place at all. i24NEWS had been first to report on the meet up on July 4, 2018, which reportedly also included U.S. nationals. All of this came more than a month after the Israeli Air Force disclosed that it had flown its F-35I Adirs, which means “mighty,” on actual combat operations, becoming the first country to do so, ever.

It is worth noting that both the initial i24NEWS story and the subsequent denial via The Jerusalem Post had very limited details. The Post did not say who within the IDF specifically had contradicted the claims or if they had done so on the record. There was no official quote provided.

At the same time, i24NEWS’ anonymous sources had not said when or where the meeting with UAE and American individuals had occurred, or whether the latter group included members of the U.S. government, from F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin, or other independent organizations. And though secondary reports indicated that Emiratis visited the IAF’s Nevatim Air Base, the original story simply notes that this facility is home to 140 Squadron, also known as the Golden Eagle Squadron, which operates all 12 of the Adirs that Israel has at present. The Israelis plan to take delivery of at least 50 F-35Is, but this number could eventually grow to 75 aircraft.

IAF

One of the IAF's 140 Squadron's F-35I Adirs.

Without knowing the specifics, it is entirely possible that the IDF made clear that it had not let Emirati officials into Nevatim rather denying it had met with them outright. It is possible that the two parties did meet to discuss the F-35's capabilities and Israel's experiences, or at least share just as much about those topics as the Israeli officials want to disclose, at another location.

A similarly limited overview briefing about the Adirs could have been part of a larger meeting or set of meetings between the IAF and the UAE Air Force personnel, as well. It is not uncommon for military forces around the world to offer information sessions about their various capabilities to distinguished visitors. And even if the Joint Strike Fighter was never an official agenda item, it seems hard to imagine that any gathering between the two countries' air forces would not have touched on Israel’s combat employment of its F-35Is and the UAE’s long-standing interest in buying Joint Strike Fighters.

Similarly, depending on exactly when the engagement took place, it might be easy to explain it as having been ostensibly related to the Greek Air Force’s annual Iniohos exercise rather than the F-35. Israel and the UAE, along with Greece, Cyprus, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all took part in Iniohos 2018, which occurred in March 2018. Representatives from the Israeli, Emirati, and U.S. air forces could have decided to meet before or afterward to either coordinate their plans or discuss lessons learned.

It's worth noting that Israel kept its own participation in the event relatively low key this year for unknown reasons, with much of the official media not even showing the IAF's contributions. The IAF did scale back plans to attend an exercise in the United States the next month due to apparent operational demands over Syria, but Israeli personnel still attended that drill and there was no attempt to downplay their involvement. In addition, Israel and the UAE both took part in the 2017 iteration of the Greek exercise, so there is no reason why the public pairing should have been an issue. 

But whether or not the two countries did hold a meeting specifically about the F-35, there has been a steady stream of recent news suggesting that senior Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been discreetly meeting with their UAE counterparts. In March 2018, the Israeli leader met with the UAE’s Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al Otaiba, according to the Associated Press.

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An official Hellenic (Greek) Air Force image showing participants in Iniohos 2018. The UAE contingent is second from the left. Israel's personnel and aircraft are notably absent.

The increasingly close relationship dates back to at least 2015 and centers on Israel’s opposition to the international deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Israeli officials reportedly began looking to increase their contacts with Arab countries, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who were also opposed to Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East and elsewhere, even in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. In May 2018, the U.S. government under President Donald Trump withdrew support from the Iran Deal, but it doesn’t seem to have changed Israel’s policies toward the Emirates.

The question of Iran looms large over the UAE’s interest in the F-35, too. Emirati Joint Strike Fighters would give the country an important tool to deter any overt Iranian military action in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in the Middle East. If a crisis were to break out, the jets would offer an additional means of responding to Iran’s moves, especially the threat of its growing ballistic missile capabilities. The jets could use their sensors to gather important electronic intelligence on Iran’s capabilities, especially its air defense networks, while just flying in the Persian Gulf on training missions or normal patrols.

And the ties with Israel have already had an impact on the UAE’s efforts to join the Joint Strike Fighter program, further helped along by Trump’s outspoken support for Israel and his stated desire to increase American arms sales abroad. Previous U.S. administrations had blocked the Emiratis from purchasing F-35s in no small part because of concerns that this would negate Israel’s so-called “qualitative military edge” in the region against any potential opponents, something the United States endeavors to preserve as a matter of national policy.

The “UAE is not going to go and fight any of the United States’ allies, we’re going to fight in the same line, we’re going to defeat the same enemy,” UAE Air Force Staff Major General Pilot Abdullah Al Hashmi, who is Assistant Undersecretary for Support Services, in the country’s Ministry of Defense, told Defense & Aerospace Report on the sidelines of the Dubai Air Show in November 2017. “I don’t think we are a threat to Israel nor do we think Israel is a threat on UAE.”

He added that allowing the UAE to buy the F-35 made good strategic sense for the United States for these same reasons. The comments also came amid reports at that time that the U.S. government was getting closer to relaxing its opposition to the Emiratis joining the Joint Strike Fighter program and that Israel could be increasingly inclined to accept the arrangement.

“The Trump team has agreed to consider the request,” an unnamed retired Pentagon official told Defense News in November 2017. “It’s not a ‘yes’ yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen once the dust settles.”

The "dust" clouding the issue is a still ongoing dispute between the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and Qatar, over the latter country’s ties with Iran. This political spat, which has proven especially difficult to bring to an end, could be among the last hurdles the Emiratis have to clear before getting a chance to buy F-35s.

IAF

A pair of Israeli F-35s.

The War Zone has noted before that it already seemed likely that expansive export controls could have eased Israeli concerns about further F-35 sales. Most importantly, the U.S. government had an unprecedented ability to limit, if not entirely curtail, foreign Joint Strike Fighter operations by blocking access to the critical cloud-based Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) support network, something it appears to be threatening to do to Turkey over a separate political dispute.

So, even if Israel and the UAE didn’t meet to discuss the F-35 specifically, or even at all in this particular instance, it seems clear that the two countries are growing increasingly close together, especially in terms of military ties. If the Emiratis do finally get a chance to buy Joint Strike Fighters, it is very possible that they might eventually find themselves flying alongside Israeli jets, at least in future exercises in third-party countries.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com