WASHINGTON ― Top Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders Thursday invoked Israel’s qualitative military edge, signaling a complex path for a possible U.S. sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to the United Arab Emirates.
At a hearing focused on Mideast issues, Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and ranking member Bob Menendez, D-N.J., highlighted their concerns to State Department officials over the possible deal. The two senators are key congressional gatekeepers on U.S. arms sales.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, in response, said the State Department and Pentagon would vet any sale and “consult with the Israelis,” as well as Congress, before proceeding.
“With all due respect, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist," Menendez said, “to figure out that if Israel’s the only country in the Middle East that has F-35s, that selling it to someone else no longer produces that qualitative military edge in the air.”
Israel is concerned the possible sale, which has been discussed along with a U.S.-brokered peace deal between the Jewish state and the UAE, would undermine Israel’s QME in the Middle East, which the U.S., under its own laws, must preserve. Reuters reported this week that the U.S. and UAE hope to have an initial agreement on the sale in place by December.
But Congress is vocally asserting its own oversight role. Beyond House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voicing support for Israel’s QME, the other two primary gatekeepers on arms sales ― House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas ― have introduced legislation that reiterates the American commitment to preserving Israel’s QME.
Under the Arms Export Control Act, Engel, McCaul, Risch and Menendez control the congressional-review process for arms sales. Their messaging on Israel’s QME suggests lawmakers would need accommodations of some kind for Israel, if they’re willing to approve an F-35 deal at all.
“Any potential arms sales must continue Congressional consultations on meeting our obligation to retain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge and satisfying the other requirements of the Arms Export Control Act,” Risch said Thursday.
Arms sales are particular a source of tension between Congress and the White House after the Trump administration declared an emergency to bypass Congress and expedite billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Democrats have accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of a coverup in the ouster of an inspector general who probed the declaration.
To boot, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner’s secret push to sell the F-35 and other advanced arms has caused confusion and frustration among agencies and congressional committees that would normally be involved in such a sale but have been left in the dark, CNN reported last month. The arms sale talks have reportedly been led by the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East, Miguel Correa.
During questioning, Hale assured Menendez that any deal would follow a normal process. However, he could not directly answer some basic questions about the potential for F-35 sales.
Asked whether the F-35 was under discussion, Hale said talks were ongoing about the UAE’s “security needs.” He said he was unaware whether the UAE had indicated a preferred timeline and a number of F-35s, or whether it had sent a letter of request ― a step that would begin the formal arms sale process.
Asked what specific threats the F-35 would answer, Hale said, “it’s important that above all, we preserve Israel’s QME but also meet the legitimate defense needs of our partners in the Gulf.”
“We consult with the Israelis on any sale prior to proceeding with it,” Hale said. “Once we determine a particular course of action, I know that the Congress will also evaluate whether or not any proposed sale meets standard of preserving QME.”
“With all due respect, I’m a big fan of consulting with the Israelis,” Menendez replied, "but I’m talking about United States law. United States law is not subject to a foreign power deciding when it will be waived. So again, I ask you, how is it that you will deal with U.S. law, as it relates to the qualitative military edge?”
“The same way we do it all the time,” Hale said. “We have a large group of people at the Pentagon, at the State Department, who evaluate based on technical criteria and assessments of security and what it is that the Israelis have and what it is that our partners need. And they will make a recommendation to the secretary of state, and then we have a consultation process with Israel that occurs every year.”
The hearing came a day after Defense Minister Benny Gantz held meetings in Washington with Kushner, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper regarding Iran and Israel-U.S. security cooperation.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post set to air Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said if there is a sale of F-35s, a longtime request of the UAE, the first planes would arrive in the Gulf state in “six or seven years.”
When asked whether the sale would in fact undermine Israel’s QME, Friedman replied: “QME is a matter of law, not a matter of policy. It has been U.S. law since 2008, and U.S. policy a lot longer than that. Israel has dealt with the QME behind the scenes professionally and successfully for more than a decade; it is going to continue to work this way.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.