Is US Support for Israel Becoming Conditional?

US negotiators acquiesced to UAE’s request to purchase F-35 fighter jets as a precondition for the country's agreement to normalize ties with Israel.

The historic Abraham Accords Peace Agreement — the official framework for rapprochement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain — signals a shift in the fundamental landscape of Middle Eastern politics and ushers in a new chapter of US-Israeli relations.

The UAE and Bahrain are the third and fourth Arab states to officially normalize relations with Israel after Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994). The US-brokered Abraham Accords, founded on peaceful relations and diplomatic normalization, hinges on an Israeli concession to halt further settlements in the West Bank, at least temporarily.

But more importantly, US negotiators acquiesced to UAE’s request to purchase F-35 fighter jets as a precondition for the agreement. This will make the UAE the first Middle Eastern country to possess the fifth-generation stealth fighter besides Israel.

Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge

The predicament rankles many in the US and Israeli political establishments over concern that it violates a formal historical doctrine known as the Qualitative Military Edge.

An August 18 statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office reads: “To begin with, the Prime Minister opposed selling the F-35 and advanced weaponry to any countries in the Middle East, including Arab States that make peace with Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot (L) give a press conference in Tel Aviv, on December 4, 2018.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot (L) give a press conference in Tel Aviv, on December 4, 2018. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP

Since its inception in 1948, Israel has relied on immense US technological and military support to maintain a strategic arms advantage over its numerically superior Arab neighbors. The proposed sale of state-of-the-art military hardware to the UAE underscores not only the emerging incongruence of US and Israeli interests but a growing desire among US policymakers to reconfigure the Middle East’s geopolitical dynamics without Israel’s express consent.

US-Israel Ties

It is well-known that the US has maintained a long-standing history of unequivocal diplomatic support for Israel, even when said support is not necessarily in the former’s self-interest.

From the annexation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights to the more recent invasions of Gaza, the US has time and again obediently served as Israel’s sole diplomatic backer. But in unprecedented fashion, Barack Obama’s administration did what no previous presidential administration dared: it openly criticized Israel’s oft-internationally condemned policies regarding the Palestinian peace process.

The enduring yet lopsided relationship between the US and Israel was, for the first time, put to the test in April 2016 when then-Vice President Joe Biden expressed “overwhelming frustration” with Jewish PM Netanyahu over repeated attempts to unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank.

Following a December 2016 UN Security Council vote condemning these annexations (where the US abstained from voting), Secretary of State John Kerry opined that “friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”

And in an online fundraiser in May this year, Biden echoed his previous sentiments. Regarding a new round of West Bank annexations by Israel, Biden urged Netanyahu to “stop the threat of annexation,” rationalizing that “It’ll choke off any hope of peace.”

The significance of these formal criticisms of Israel cannot be understated; they have paved the way for the paradigm shift currently unfolding between Washington and Jerusalem.

Lopsided Relationship

As elements within Donald Trump’s inner circle expand upon Obama’s precedent, the US-Israeli relationship is now being challenged from both sides of the aisle. The Abraham Accords are explicitly redefining the ties vis-a-vis the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.

The fact that Washington is forging ahead on the arms deal despite Israeli opposition is telling. And if the US political establishment unites in its disavowal of further Israeli expansion into the West Bank, the US-Israeli honeymoon phase will have run its course.

Naturally, some will contend that the US is betraying its closest ally, but this is hardly the case. Year after year, Israel has been a top recipient of US foreign military aid. In the fiscal year 2017, it received 3.2 billion US dollars and 3.1 billion in 2018, despite being a high-income country with a relatively small population of 8 million.

The uneven relationship between Israel and the United States has been left unquestioned for too long. America’s Middle East foreign policy objectives should address the region’s needs instead of blindly promoting one state’s agenda.

Unilateral and Unchecked Adventurism

The flagging Palestinian peace process is an appropriate microcosm of this predicament; it illustrates how unilateral and unchecked adventurism has failed to secure the interests not only of Israel, but also the Palestinians.

Beating a dead horse simply to reaffirm loyalty and commitment has proven to be a waste of time and resources, as previous peace talks have shown. And although there is no grand consensus in Washington on how to manage the US-Israeli alliance going forward, a growing number of policymakers understand that the US’ best interests are not inherently tied to those of Israel.

Americans should not reflexively conclude that this is a bad thing because the past has shown that staying the course simply is not sustainable for either country.

While the Abraham Accords do not comprehensively address the myriad needs of the Middle East, they promote a multilateral, and hence more viable, approach to tackling them. And that is a step in the right direction.

Headshot of Andrew LeonardAndrew Leonard is a freelance writer covering foreign policy and international politics. He previously worked as a sportswriter and also served as a special interests columnist while in college.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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