The Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be dwindling. Three Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan – have recently announced normalization agreements with Israel. Others (Oman, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait and other African or Asian countries) could follow soon. This suggests that Israel, a country that has been fought over since its foundation in 1948, is safer. But the reality is more complicated.
One key to Israel’s survival can be summed up with the acronym “QME” or “Qualitative Military Edge”. The concept is anchored in American law: Israel must have qualitatively better weapons than its neighbors. In recent years, after many Middle Eastern states went on arms shopping sprees, Israel has also looked at the effects of quantity, which has led to a new acronym: “QQME” (“Qualitative and Quantitative Military Edge”).
Whatever one may judge, this edge could soon be under threat. The United States is tempted to sell advanced weapon systems to Israel’s new Arab partners. In particular, the UAE would like to buy F-35 stealth multi-role aircraft.
The urge to sell is strong given the clear economic benefits for America. After all, the UAE has deep pockets, and COVID-19 has plunged America’s economy into a long period of uncertainty. The sale of large orders could be a real blessing. In addition, the F-35’s positioning so close to Iran could be an important deterrent. It would also not hurt to demonstrate to the people of the UAE the tangible benefits of making peace with Israel.
Not so fast. History is full of examples of failed arms sales in the Middle East. The country of Iran was the beneficiary of many American military deals before the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the current radical regime to power. The Iranian air force today consists largely of (outdated) American F-4 phantom fighters. In 2012, the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood that came to power in Egypt almost turned a fleet of F-16s into enemy planes. And America recently dodged a bullet with the government in Turkey, which was a partner in the F-35 program. After Ankara purchased the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system – raising serious concerns about interoperability with U.S. systems – Congress removed Turkey from the program.
In short, friendly governments of today can become enemies or opponents tomorrow. Such warnings are particularly clear with monarchies and autocracies, but also with young democracies (like Egypt after the Arab Spring) or more established democracies slipping into dictatorships (like Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan). There is also the danger that sensitive technologies acquired by these countries will be shared with opponents; China, for example, is a major problem today.
The Congress, which monitors arms sales abroad, seems to understand Israel’s predicament. But Israel has no right of veto. Indeed, there have been disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem in the past, including the famous dispute between the Reagan government and Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government when Reagan sold AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
Today, America and Israel must ensure that new peace partners can benefit from diplomacy without undermining the Israeli QME. This means identifying advanced systems that raise fewer red flags.
Some examples include homeland security systems, border control technologies, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), drones, radars, certain missile defense systems such as “drone-domes,” electronic warfare systems, air defense systems, intelligence services, satellites, electro-optical payloads, armored vehicles, and more. The sale of such systems would be much less controversial and would be faster, especially for some partners.
The USA (not Israel) must explain the reasons for this approach to its peace partners. This should not be difficult. These countries have chosen to end their hostility towards Israel because Israel is a strong regional power with the ability and motivation to confront vicious actors such as Iran – a regime that is viewed with concern by Sunni states and Israel alike. Regional partners should want Israel to remain strong, with capabilities unmatched in the region.
Currently, a handful of legislators are exploring ways to further