Amid historic normalisation talks between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, American officials spent a morning at an Abu Dhabi air base housing U.S. stealth jets which the Gulf state hopes to buy despite Israeli objections.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner met Emirati military officials at the UAE’s Al Dhafra air base, where the U.S. keeps some of its F-35 advanced stealth warplanes, highlighting the UAE’s years-long drive to obtain the aircraft.
Israel, which has the F-35, has balked at any other Middle East powers obtaining the plane, citing U.S. laws that it should maintain a military advantage in the region.
Kushner, son-in-law to U.S. President Donald Trump, arrived in the Gulf Arab state on Monday on a two-day trip with an Israeli delegation for talks with UAE officials following their U.S.-brokered Aug. 13 accord to normalise relations.
The Gulf state, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, has long expressed interest in acquiring the fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) , which Israel has used in combat.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has said normalisation should remove “any hurdle” for the United States to sell the F-35 to the UAE.
A UAE official said the visit to the Emirati air base, which the U.S. also uses, near the UAE capital Abu Dhabi was not related to the F-35 issue, while another praised three decades of U.S.-UAE military cooperation.
“Our relationship has been built on trust and mutual support,” Major General Falah al-Qahtani told reporters. “We have stood together to fight extremism in all of its forms.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday F-35 plane sales were not part of the deal with the UAE, underscoring Israel’s concern not to dilute its access to advanced American weapons systems in the region.
“The Americans acknowledged that. Our position hasn’t changed,” Netanyahu said.
He said that White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien made clear to him during a visit to Israel this week that the United States is committed to preserving Israel’s military edge in the volatile region.
The United States has sold the F-35 to allies including South Korea, Japan and Israel. Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme was suspended over its purchase of an advanced Russian anti-aircraft system.
“The F-35 issue is a long-standing request of the UAE and it’s not by any means a driver of reaching this accord,” Jamal Al-Musharakh, chief of policy planning and international cooperation at the UAE foreign ministry, told reporters.
Kushner, who travelled on to Bahrain from the UAE on Tuesday, said he hoped another Arab country would normalise ties with Israel within months.
No other Arab state has said so far it is considering following the UAE. Several have ruled out normalisation under current conditions. Only two other Arab states have forged full relations with Israel – Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
In related news, annual trade between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is expected to reach $4 billion, an Israeli minister said on Monday.
Israel and the UAE announced in August they would normalize diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by Washington.
The UAE has since announced it was scrapping an economic boycott on Israel and officials from the two countries have said they were looking at cooperation in defense, energy, medicine, tourism, technology and financial investment.
A number of Israeli and Emirati businesses have signed deals since the normalization accord was announced.
“Within three to five years trade between Israel and the United Arab Emirates will reach $4 billion,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen told Israel’s Reshet Bet radio station.
A spokesman for Cohen, Israel’s former economy minister, said the figure was annual and included defense trade.
Israeli carrier Israir said on Sunday it had reserved slots for commercial flights from Tel Aviv to the UAE, preparing for potential tourism.
The heads of Israel’s two biggest banks will travel to the UAE this month, the first such visits since the countries agreed to normalize relations.