Israel has reason to be concerned about the United States’ plan to sell F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. Although the UAE is an enthusiastic ally and peace partner to Israel today, who knows what tomorrow will bring?
NATO member Turkey was one of Israel’s closest strategic allies until President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began seizing dictatorial powers and turning long-secular Turkey into an Islamic state.
But while Israel has reason to fear the F-35 sale, those considerations do not explain the hysterical reaction that news of the sale elicited from former Israel Defense Forces commanders. Day after day, former generals stand before the cameras and accuse Netanyahu of treason for not doing more to block the sale.
What explains their behavior? There are ample precedents for the UAE using its peace deal with Israel as a way to convince the United States to upgrade its military. But there are no previous examples of Israeli retired generals objecting to such sales. The opposite is the case.
In 1973, Egypt staged an unprovoked invasion of Israel. Although Israel won the Yom Kippur War, it took the lives of thousands of IDF soldiers and an airlift of U.S. weapons to accomplish the task.
Yet a mere six years after the war, the same generals who commanded the war cheered and sang songs of peace when Israel agreed to surrender the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for a cold, unfriendly peace with its greatest enemy. Moreover, the generals supported Egypt’s demand that the United States modernize its military, and the United States tied military assistance to Egypt to its military assistance to Israel. The top-of-the-line U.S. fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery and missiles soon replaced Egypt’s Soviet platforms. Post-peace Egypt posed a much more formidable threat to Israel than pre-peace Egypt did. But Israel’s generals never protested.
In 1994, Israel’s security brass cooed and slobbered over Jordan’s King Hussein as he signed a cold peace with Israel. They weren’t bothered by the fact that their peace partner also permitted Hamas to headquarter in Amman. They were only too happy to support the U.S. decision to equip Jordan with a squadron of F-16s.
And then there are the Palestinians. The generals now screaming about the F-35 sale to the Emirates were among the authors of Israel’s reckless decision to give assault rifles to PLO terrorists and subcontract Israel’s counter-terror operations to those terrorists in exchange for Yasser Arafat’s transparently dishonest pledge to make peace with the Jewish state.
The same generals insisting today that Netanyahu is selling Israel’s strategic interests down the river in exchange for a piece of paper from Abu Dhabi supported Arafat’s moves to build multiple terror militias, armed and trained by European militaries and the CIA. They maintained their support for the lunatic strategy even after the same terrorists turned their guns on Israeli civilians and soldiers. Indeed, they still support it today.
What explains the peacenik generals’ righteous indignation against the F-35 sale to the UAE? To be sure, strategic alliances shift with interests and with strategic balances of power, but unlike Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Emiratis demonstrate daily their enthusiasm and commitment to their burgeoning alliance with Israel.
The most obvious reason for their (self-)righteous rage is ego. The generals hate the peace deal—and are therefore scope-locked on the F-35 sale—because they didn’t negotiate it. Case in point is Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Earlier this week, Gantz announced that there is no reason for Israel to object to the F-35 sale because the United States is legally required to maintain Israel’s qualitative military advantage over the Arab militaries and the Trump administration has repeatedly pledged to do so. Yet in the same breath that he dispelled fears over the sale, Gantz attacked Netanyahu for discussing it with the United States without including him in the discussions.
It isn’t that the deal is bad for Israel. It’s that Gantz can’t claim credit for the deal.
But the generals aren’t only about ego. They also oppose Netanyahu’s strategic doctrine, which undergirds the peace accords.
Netanyahu has long championed “peace from strength,” whereas Israel’s leftist military establishment signs onto the left’s “land for peace” motto. For a generation, the generals have insisted that Peace Now and the European Union are right. That the only way to achieve peace is by giving the PLO whatever it demands.
Retired generals Amos Gilad and Matan Vilnai are a case in point. The two men are among Netanyahu’s most vocal critics. They argue that Israel would have been better off rejecting peace with the UAE to prevent the F-35 sale. Vilnai, a former Labor minister who now heads the left-wing Commanders for Israel’s Security, which supports an Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley, and Gilad, who was an aide to Netanyahu’s most outspoken political enemy, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, insist their positions have nothing to do with politics.
The “apolitical” criticism of the F-35 deal emanating from the security establishment is strongly reminiscent of the same retired generals’ violent opposition to Israel’s recent purchase of upgraded submarines from Germany. For years the generals have insisted that a stench of corruption exudes from the sale and from Netanyahu’s support for the deal specifically. But repeated criminal probes of the submarine deal have come up empty. And this makes sense.
The generals’ opposition to the submarine sale isn’t rooted in concern over corruption. It is rooted in the IDF’s long-standing opposition to Netanyahu’s strategic vision, which seeks the upgrade of the navy to the level of a strategic force comparable to the air force. For the generals, the battlefields of the future will be little different from those of the past: They will be dominated by air and ground forces, while naval forces will play a mere supporting role. For decades they have fought Netanyahu’s moves to upgrade the navy because they don’t want to upgrade the navy. They oppose it not because it’s a bad idea, per se. They oppose it because it isn’t their idea.
From the time news broke of the peace deal with the UAE, the media and the generals have used the F-35 sales to oppose it. Every news broadcast includes some new “exclusive interview” with yet another retired general insisting that the F-35 deal is the greatest calamity to befall Israel, perhaps ever.
The F-35 deal may or may not be a blow to Israel’s strategic capabilities. We’ll have to wait to see what the United States intends to do to offset the damage it does to Israel’s strategic position. But what is absolutely clear is that to maintain its qualitative edge, Israel needs to keep its politicized, and strategically blind security establishment away from decision-making circles now and into the future.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate