US defence secretary in Israel for talks on 'military edge' following UAE F-35 jet sales
US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper held talks in Israel on Thursday to discuss its regional military advantage after Israel normalised ties with three Arab countries.
Esper met Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz and senior military officials during the brief visit, which comes a week after the two defence ministers met in Washington.
At Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Esper was given a presentation on Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system, an AFP journalist reported. The US army is buying two Iron Dome batteries for around $300 million.
A source familiar with the meeting, who requested anonymity, earlier said Gantz and Esper would build on discussions held in Washington last week on "making progress towards upgrading Israel's qualitative military edge" in view of "developments in the region".
Following that visit, Israel said it would not oppose US sales of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates after the two countries’ normalisation deal.
That broke with years of Israeli policy opposing the sale of the fighter planes to any US allies in the region, including Egypt and Jordan, both of which have peace treaties with Israel.
On Thursday, a US lawmaker said the United States has agreed to sell the UAE the jets.
Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the move could "significantly change the military balance in the Gulf and affect Israel's military edge".
The UAE in August became the third Arab state to establish relations with Israel -- after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 -- and it was followed by Bahrain and Sudan.
The move violated the 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative, which offered Israel normal relations only in exchange for withdrawal from illegally occupied Palestinian territory.
On Thursday, Gantz said that in light of changes in the region, "Israel will have the tools it needs to contend with aggressive and de-stabilising forces, making it an even more effective ally to the United States and creating the condition for peace to prosper".
After talks with Esper in Washington last week, Gantz tweeted that the two sides had signed "a joint declaration confirming the United States' strategic commitment to Israel's qualitative military edge in the Middle East for years to come".
Israeli military shopping list
According to Israel's biggest selling newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, the army had submitted a list of requests to Washington to ensure that Israel's military edge would not suffer.
"The United States agreed to approve in full the list of requested acquisitions that Israel submitted," including an "additional squadron of F-35s," it said.
The list also includes a "squadron of the latest model of F-15s (fighter jets)" and the "US agreed to help Israel buy the V-22 helicopter plane which is designed for long-range special forces' missions," it added.
"Now the question is: who is going to pay for that expensive aircraft?" asked the daily.
Esper's stop in Israel, after short visits to Bahrain and Jordan, comes less than a week before a US presidential election.