The Trump White House is quietly planning sales of F-35 stealth fighters and advanced drones to the Emiratis as part of a wider plan to realign the Middle East, but Israel and Congress may object.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has accelerated a push to sell the F-35 stealth fighter and advanced armed drones to the United Arab Emirates, at a time when the Gulf nation is working with the Trump administration on a historic plan to formalize diplomatic ties with Israel, according to American officials familiar with the discussions.
Administration officials in recent weeks gave a classified briefing about the F-35 to the Emirati military — despite some concerns among National Security Council staff about the wisdom of disclosing details on one of the Pentagon’s most advanced weapons to a foreign government before a decision about a potential arms sale has been completed.
American officials deny that the new push to sell the advanced weapons is a direct reward for the Emirati role in a diplomatic breakthrough, announced by President Trump last week, where the Emirates would become just the third Arab nation to recognize Israel. In exchange, Israel will suspend annexation of occupied West Bank territory.
But officials do not dispute that the new momentum on the arms sale — after years of stalled requests by the Emirates to buy the fighter jet — is linked to the broader diplomatic initiative.
Such a move could dramatically alter the military balance in the Middle East and is likely to face strong objections from some parts of the government in Israel, which has the jet and has been wary of the United States selling the aircraft to other nations in the region. Israel’s military has said such sales could weaken the nation’s strong advantage in the Middle East.
Without the support of the Israeli government, it is unlikely Congress would support the sale.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel strenuously denies that he gave even tacit consent for the sale of F-35s or any other advanced weapons to the Emirates as part of recent diplomatic negotiations with the White House. He insists he has consistently and repeatedly pressed Israel’s opposition to any such deal with American officials.
A White House spokesman declined to comment. Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Anwar Gargash, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, has made no mention of any arms deal in his many comments on the diplomatic agreement with Israel.
Even if the Trump White House were to announce its intent, selling the F-35s would take six to eight years and could be undone by a future administration. Many of the top foreign policy advisers to Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, were officials in the Obama administration and are skeptical of weapons sales to the Gulf Arab nations because of the many civilians killed by the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war.
The Emirati arms deal has been pushed by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has been central to the diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Emirates. Mr. Kushner’s efforts over three years to forge a peace agreement between the Israeli government and Palestinians have gone nowhere, and Palestinians have been angered by the Trump administration’s pro-Israel policies. Mr. Kushner has hoped to get the Gulf Arab leaders, including the Emirati crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, to push the Palestinians to support his proposals.
Another top White House official working on the arms deal is Maj. Gen. Miguel Correa, an Army officer who formerly served as the defense attaché in Abu Dhabi. General Correa is now a senior member of the National Security Council staff working on Middle East issues.
The circumstances around General Correa’s departure from Abu Dhabi are murky. Two American officials said he left his position after clashing with the embassy’s chargé d’affaires, Steven C. Bondy, who believed General Correa was having meetings with Emirati officials about arms sales, the war in Yemen and other sensitive topics without his knowledge or consent.
The Emiratis have pushed the Americans to sell them F-35s for at least six years, but Israeli officials have objected. The warplane is designed to have a very low radar signature, and can strike ground targets and engage in air-to-air combat to maintain control of the skies.
“The F-35 has been the single-biggest defense system objective the Emiratis have had for years,” said Barbara A. Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the Emirates.
But, she said, with Israel and the Emirates agreeing to full diplomatic relations, the Emiratis now expect Israel to relinquish some of its traditional technological edge. “If you’re making the big move — normalization of relations — you’re in a different position as an Arab state,” Ms. Leaf said.
The United Arab Emirates is among the few traditional allies of the United States that have enjoyed good relations with the Trump administration, and it has found common cause with the White House in taking a hawkish position toward Iran. In an interview Wednesday with The Jerusalem Post, David M. Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel, said that improving the Emirates’ arsenal would be beneficial for the nations allied against Iran.
“Ultimately, under the right circumstances, both the U.S. and Israel would benefit greatly from having a strong ally situated across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran,” he said.
Mr. Friedman insisted that any decision on weapons sales would be made keeping in mind that the United States is committed to Israel having military supremacy in the region.
Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, American policy has been to ensure that Israel maintains what is called a “qualitative military edge” over its Arab neighbors. The monthslong interagency process for ensuring proposed weapons sales meet that requirement is highly classified and involves review by a handful of U.S. officials. The congressional definition says the United States must ensure that Israel can defeat “any credible conventional military threat” while sustaining “minimal damage and casualties.”
Andrew Miller, a former State Department and National Security Council official now at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, said that “the mere fact that U.A.E. is making peace with Israel does not exempt the U.S.” from requirements to maintain Israel’s military superiority.
“Based on my assessment, there’s legitimate concern that the sale of F-35s to U.A.E. could compromise Israel’s qualitative military edge,” he said, adding that the jet can slip through advanced air defense systems.
If the sales process moves forward, the State Department would notify Congress. Concerned lawmakers could try to freeze the sale or kill it.
Mr. Trump, Mr. Kushner and other White House aides have strongly advocated arms sales to Gulf Arab nations, which has led to one of the biggest rifts between the administration and Congress.
Since 2017, lawmakers have put holds on proposed arms packages to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, citing the thousands of civilians killed by a Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war. Many of the civilians died from precision-guided bombs made by Raytheon. In a widely criticized move in 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a declaration of an “emergency” over Iranian activities in the region to bypass Congress in pushing through $8.1 billion of weapons to the two nations.
Administration officials are discussing whether to end an important part of the congressional notification process in future sales.
In Yemen, the Emirati military, which is far better trained than that of Saudi Arabia, has withdrawn most of its forces. But the Emirates has deployed warplanes in the Libyan war, where many civilians have been killed.
White House officials aim to shepherd a peace agreement between Israel and other Arab nations that is similar to the one reached last week. But there are great obstacles with Saudi Arabia, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials there would need more robust incentives, say diplomats and experts on the region. Sales of significant arms packages to the Emirates could help prod the Saudis in that direction, they say, since Riyadh also wants to buy advanced American weapons.
The proposed sale of armed drones to the Emirates would almost certainly create anxieties among Israeli officials and U.S. lawmakers. The Emiratis are trying to buy Predator drones, made by General Atomics. Lawmakers have put a hold on one package. But there is a more powerful drone model, the Reaper, that the Emiratis also seek to buy, and that is part of the White House’s proposed arms sale deal with the F-35s, made by Lockheed Martin.
Until now, the U.S. government had held back from selling that category of armed drone to other nations because of a ban in the Missile Technology Control Regime, a decades-old arms control pact among 35 nations. But on July 24, the Trump administration announced it would issue sales licenses for those drones and bypass the relevant parts of the arms control agreement. Democratic lawmakers and some arms control experts said the move was reckless and could lead to proliferation of the lethal drone technology.
On Tuesday, an Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, reported that the Trump administration had secretly agreed to a sale of F-35s and drones to the Emirates as part of the Emirati peace agreement with Israel.
In response, Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued an unusually detailed statement listing government efforts over the summer to convey to Washington its opposition to the sale of F-35s to any country in the region. “The peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates does not include any reference to arms sales, and the U.S. has made it clear that it will always take strict care to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge,” the statement said.
But it did not explicitly deny the United States had decided to sell F-35s to the Emiratis outside the normalization agreement.
The weapons issue injected a sour note into Israeli celebrations over the diplomatic deal, compounded by statements by the Israeli defense and foreign ministers, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition partners and political rivals, that they had been left in the dark.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office said the defense minister, Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff, had been told in late July of communications with American officials opposing the sale of F-35s.
But Mr. Gantz responded angrily to the reports of a secret arms deal, saying in a news conference on Tuesday that he had not been informed of the normalization agreement in advance and that “it is forbidden to take security risks.”
“The F-35 is the most advanced plane in the world,” he added. “It’s not good for Israel to have it going around in other places.”
Some Israeli analysts said citizens were wary of trusting Mr. Netanyahu on the issue because of revelations last year that the prime minister had secretly greenlighted the sale of German submarines to Egypt, reversing a yearslong policy opposing such a sale.
A senior Israeli air force officer said that a future Emirati government that becomes hostile to Israel could deploy F-35s against it. And the abilities of the jets could impair Israel’s ability to operate freely in the Persian Gulf — which Israel sees as a critical need because of the threat from Iran.