The Arab-Israel conflict appears to be waning. Three Arab countries—the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan—recently announced normalization agreements with Israel. More (Oman, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait and other African or Asian states) may soon follow. This suggests that Israel, an embattled country since its founding in 1948, is safer. But the reality is more complicated.
One key to Israel's survival can be summed up in the acronym "QME," or "Qualitative Military Edge." The concept is enshrined in American law: Israel must have qualitatively better weapons than its neighbors. In recent years, after many Middle East states went on weapons-shopping sprees, Israel has also scrutinized the impact of quantity, yielding a new acronym: "QQME" ("Qualitative and Quantitative Military Edge").
No matter how one assesses it, that edge could soon be imperiled. The United States is tempted to sell advanced weapons systems to Israel's new Arab partners. In particular, the UAE would like to purchase F-35 stealth multirole aircraft.
The urge to sell, given the clear economic benefits for America, is great. After all, the UAE has deep pockets, and COVID-19 has thrust America's economy into protracted uncertainty. The sale of big-ticket items could be a real boon. Moreover, positioning the F-35 so close to Iran could serve as an important deterrent. It also wouldn't hurt to demonstrate to the people of the UAE the tangible benefits of peace-making with Israel.
Not so fast. History is replete with examples of Middle East arms sales gone wrong. The country of Iran, before the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the current radical regime to power, was the beneficiary of many American military deals. The Iranian air force today is comprised largely of (antiquated) American F-4 Phantom jet fighters. In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood regime that took power in Egypt nearly turned a fleet of F-16s into enemy aircraft. 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 significant concerns about interoperability with U.S. systems—Congress cut Turkey from the program.
In short, friendly governments today can become enemies or adversaries tomorrow. Such warnings are particularly salient with monarchies and autocracies, but also with fledgling democracies (like Egypt after the Arab Spring) or more established democracies that are sliding into dictatorships (like Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan). There is also a danger that sensitive technologies acquired by those countries might be shared with adversaries; China, for example, is a major concern today.
Congress, which oversees weapons sales abroad, appears to grasp Israel's predicament. But Israel does not have a veto. Indeed, Washington and Jerusalem have had disagreements in the past, including the famous dust-up between the Reagan administration and the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, 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 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 like "Drone-Dome," electronic warfare systems, anti-air-craft defense systems, intelligence, satellites, electro-optics payloads, armored vehicles and more. The sale of such systems would be significantly less controversial and happen more quickly, especially for some partners.
The U.S. (not Israel) must convey to its peace partners the rationale behind this approach. Doing so shouldn't be difficult. These countries chose to end their hostility toward Israel because Israel is a strong regional power with the capability and motivation to counter malign actors like Iran—a regime that the Sunni states and Israel view with equal alarm. Regional partners should want Israel to remain strong, with capabilities that are unmatched in the region.
Currently, a handful of legislators are exploring ways to further improve Israel's QME. Unfortunately, that may not be easy. Israel has finite funds to spend on weapons systems, based on the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with the U.S. in September 2016. The supplemental Israel budget is similarly finite—and growing smaller due to the economic contraction stemming from COVID-19. Moreover, there are weapons systems that Israel cannot even operate, owing to the lack of suitable platforms, infrastructure and other issues.
Some in Israel are advocating for a new Deferred Payment Plan agreement that would allow the country to access future American allocations, based on both the current and future MOUs. Others would like to start negotiating a new MOU now, in order to allow for greater funding sooner. This could enable Israel to sign new contracts for advanced platforms that it currently cannot afford. Both sides appear amenable, but this is by no means a certainty.
Another idea is to increase prepositioned American systems and ammunition in Israel. This would ensure that Israel could access certain items during an emergency. Such an arrangement would focus mostly on ammunition, but might also include Iron Dome or David's Sling systems—or perhaps Tamir and Stunner interceptors.
As options are weighed, the U.S. and Israel should continue to hew to the text and the spirit of the MOU covering the years 2018 to 2027. That agreement granted Israel significant purchasing power to plan in advance for its own defense, with much of those funds earmarked for weapons platforms and systems made in America. The MOU enables Israel to defend itself—without needing the United States—as a bulwark against radicalism in the Middle East, to engage in security cooperation with other allies, to develop new cutting-edge weapons that would bolster the U.S. defense and more.
This, along with enhanced technological cooperation and a clear commitment to Israel's QME, will ensure that U.S. and Israeli interests are upheld, and well into the future.