Fresh off of signing a peace deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel submitted a list of demands to the US for a substantial amount of arms, estimated at $8 billion in value. This is nominally to ensure Israel retains qualitative superiority after the UAE buys American F-35s.
Israel’s list includes an entire squadron of additional F-35s for them, along with 12 V-22 Ospreys, and early delivery of mid-air refueling KC-46As. Israel is also expecting to get some bombs and other munitions for their trouble.
The Qualitative Military Edge (QME) is guaranteed under US law, and has served as an excuse for decades of increased military aid to Israel, as well special one-off aid when the US does something Israel even sort-of objects to.
Israel initially objected to US sales to the UAE, despite the peace deal they just signed, and which both the US and UAE believed came with Israel accepting the sales as one of the deal’s conditions. Now, Israel says they aren’t directly objecting to the sales, but want the extra arms for the "arms race" they believe that the UAE sales will kickstart across the Middle East. Israel also made reference to leadership changes in the region.
While US sales in the Middle East have left the region awash in weapons and have tended to fuel tit-for-tat buys, there is no obvious reason this specific sale to the UAE would do so. The UAE has ambitions to become a regional power, but has very limited rivals. The one obvious rival would be Iran, a catch-all excuse for Israel, but there is no reason to imagine Iran could afford to buy competing warplanes, or would even want to. Iran’s military doctrine has been affordable defense capabilities in response to pricey advanced arms.
If the US accepts Israel’s analysis, this should be a good reason to rethink arms sales to the UAE. On top of that, it is worth asking if sending a bunch of advanced arms to Israel wouldn’t fuel the arms race even more, since Israel has many more regional rivals.
Historically, any Israeli QME demands have been easily accepted by American administrations, and it’s not hard to see why. Beyond the influence of the Israel lobby, the US arms industry has tremendous influence over policies regarding arms sales overseas. This is a win-win for the weapons makers, who get to sell arms to the UAE and then get to double-dip by selling arms to the US to give to Israel.
That is a continuation of the very policy that led to all this regional tension in the first place, where the Trump administration, and those before them, prioritized annual increases in sales whether or not that meant creating more overly armed, overly aggressive Middle Eastern nations trying to buy influence through military might.
That’s something the US needs to rethink, and soon, because these huge military budgets are not sustainable, and they’ve caused a lot of regional turmoil, the war in Yemen being the worst current example. The world can ill-afford more Yemens, so whether the UAE can afford more warplanes or not, their sales need to be done with great care.
As far as Israel feeling entitled to another handout in the name of QME, this would be a particularly opportune time for the US to break that habit. Israel has far too many weapons of war as it is, and is attacking Syria several times a week at this rate.
Israel has long felt entitled to getting a little taste when big arms sales are made, and the US badly needs to discourage that sense. The legal structures surrounding QME certainly don’t compel the US to give them nearly so much, and keeping Israel armed to the teeth simply encourages bad behavior. In a region where we have quite enough conflict already, the US needs to be more deliberate and less hasty to send arms out the door.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in Forbes, the Toronto Star, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Providence Journal, the Daily Caller, the American Conservative, the Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.