WASHINGTON — Amidst expectations that the U.S. will sell F-35 joint strike fighters to the United Arab Emirates, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Tuesday reaffirmed his commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge.

“The defense relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger. We intend to keep it that way,” Esper said in pooled comments ahead of a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“I do want to say upfront for everyone that a cornerstone of our defense relationship is preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region,” Esper added. “The United States is committed to that and the Department of Defense is committed to that imperative. We will continue to support the longstanding U.S. policy to maintain Israel’s security.”

Israel’s QME is a congressionally mandated rule that, in essence, says Israel needs to maintain a military technology edge over its neighbors. The rationale for the language is that Israel, as a small nation surrounded by hostile states, needs an extra edge from its U.S. partner to survive. In essence, this has meant certain high-end weapons will not be allowed to be sold to states in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

That seems to have changed for the Emirates, however, in the wake of a new agreement normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel. Immediately reports surfaced that F-35 sales to the UAE are forthcoming, with President Donald Trump saying earlier this month that “I would have no problem in selling them the F-35, I would have absolutely no problem.”

The UAE has eyed the possibility of buying the F-35, America’s newest fighter jet, for years. While potential sales of the jet to the UAE or Saudi Arabia were largely seen as a long-shot because of objections from Israel, there was some hope in the UAE that strong support for increasing arms sales abroad would open the doors.

In 2017, regional sources told Defense News the UAE was eyeing a buy of 24 F-35s; it is unclear if that number is still in play now. The UAE is looking to replace its 67-aircraft Mirage 2000 fleet.

Notably, Israeli publication Calcalist reported last week that there is a strong chance that the wings for the UAE’s F-35 fleet could be produced by Israel Aerospace Industries.

For his part, Gantz used his comments to praise the military relationship with the U.S., saying “we have no other United States, nor do you have any other Israel. And we will make sure together to keep those bonds active and close to one another.”

“It has to do with QME but it also has to do with a lot of cooperation that we have. We always say that is in our more interest to share with you anything we can possibly share. And we will continue those relations into the future,” he added.