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Esper, meeting with Gantz, reaffirms commitment to Israel's regional military edge

Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed confidence the US would maintain Israel's qualitative military edge

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the Pentagon on Tuesday to discuss maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region amid a Trump administration proposal to sell the United Arab Emirates the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

“The defense relationship between the US and Israel has never been stronger. And we intend to keep it that way,” Esper said.

Esper called the long-standing US policy to maintain Israel’s regional military superiority “a cornerstone” of the US-Israel relationship. “The United States is committed to that and the Department of Defense is committed to that,” he said.

Al-Monitor had earlier reported that Gantz was likely to request that Israel be given additional hardware to ensure its military edge, and that it be given the option to sell advanced US-Israeli drone technology to the UAE.

Reuters reported Tuesday that US officials are exploring ways to enable Israeli radar to detect the UAE’s potential future F-35s, but could not determine whether that meant modifying Israeli systems or the F-35s.

The United States is reportedly hoping to have an agreement signed by UAE National Day on Dec. 2.

Israel’s Ynet news reported that Gantz arrived in Washington seeking additional US military hardware to compensate for the proposed UAE sale, including expediting an existing $2.4 billion sale of KC-46 refueling aircraft and future access to the new F-15 EX, an updated variant of the F-15 with larger payload capacity and updated electronic systems.

Gantz on Tuesday emphasized the centrality of Washington militarily favoring Israel to the two countries’ relationship.

“It is in our interest to share with you anything we can possibly share, and we will continue those relations into the future,” he said. “We see both as a privilege but also as a … strategic necessity. And we’re going to make sure it stays like this.”

Iran’s increased military adventurism in the region is one reason for closer defense and intelligence coordination between the United States and Israel in recent years.

But a number of Israeli officials vocally criticized the US offer to sell the F-35 to the UAE amid negotiations aimed at getting Abu Dhabi to normalize relations with Israel.

Gantz, too, was reportedly incensed after news of the potential arrangement leaked last month, but seemed more assured after meeting with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior Middle East adviser Jared Kushner and US national security adviser Robert O’Brien late last month.

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, White House adviser Avi Berkowitz and special envoy for Iran Brian Hook were also in the Aug. 30 meeting.

The defense minister opened his trip to Washington on Tuesday with a meeting with Kushner, who is leading efforts to convince Arab states to recognize Israel ahead of the Nov. 3 US presidential election.

Last week the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain signed their countries’ normalization agreement with Israel alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

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