One of the reasons that this week’s delegation of Israeli leaders to the United Arab Emirates – signifying the first step in the agreement between the two countries to normalize relations – was so highly celebrated inside of Israel is because it marks not just an agreement on paper but a distinct new phase between Israel and its non-immediate Sunni neighbors. Unlike the cold peace with Egypt and Jordan, which in both cases is essentially a combination of a non-aggression pact and a military-to-military agreement on security cooperation, ties between Israel and the UAE are shaping up to be far broader and deeper, encompassing everything from tourism and investment to joint space flights. As opposed to grudging acceptance from a government following a series of Israeli military victories, Israelis have a real sense that relations with the UAE will be based on actual acceptance, and that for the first time they will experience true integration in the larger region.
This makes the one big bone of contention between the sides – the potential sale of American F-35s to the UAE – such an interesting one, because it not only involves some tough decision making on Israel’s part, but challenges the dominant Israeli view of how to evaluate regional threats. The question raised by the prospect of Emirati possession of F-35s and how it impacts Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) – a doctrine that is literally enshrined in American law – is whether Israel will ever be able to really let its guard down and be accepted by its neighbors, or whether it is fated to be on constant alert until the end of time. How one views the answer to this question is colored by two of the most famous Israeli metaphors about its security challenges and posture in the Middle East, which seem similar at first glance but are actually philosophically different.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in writing about the Yishuv’s challenges with Palestinians living in Mandatory Palestine, argued that Zionists had to construct a figurative iron wall, demonstrating to the Palestinians that it could not be breached and that the Zionists would not be defeated or driven out. Only once Arabs in Palestine and in neighboring countries grasped that the Jews were there to stay and that the situation could not be changed through fighting and violence would they, according to Jabotinsky’s theory, moderate their views and demands and negotiate peace agreements with Zionist leaders. The basic concept at work here is peace through demonstrations of strength, which over time force the other side into acceptance and moderation, and it is a theory that has been wholeheartedly embraced by Prime Minister Netanyahu for decades.
Ehud Barak has used a different metaphor over the years when discussing Israel’s security, describing Israel as a villa in the jungle. This posits that Israel is an island of safety and stability amidst a region where norms and rules do not apply – the law of the jungle, in other words – and thus Israel will always have to vigilantly stand guard in order to prevent being overrun by the chaos beyond its borders. As with Jabotinsky’s iron wall, Israel does this by projecting strength and ensuring that there is no scenario in which it cannot defend itself from the threats surrounding it. But unlike the iron wall theory, where projection of strength is a means to an end of acceptance and eventually negotiated arrangements with Israel’s foes, the villa in the jungle is a snapshot in time that will not necessarily abate. Barak has never ruled out the possibility that Arab states will view Israel’s strength, change their attitudes, and negotiate peace agreements with Israel, but the villa in the jungle metaphor does not contemplate this as the likely next step in the same way that Jabotinsky spelled out with his iron wall. It may happen and it may not happen, but Israel needs to assume that the jungle will never be cleared to make room for townhouses and upscale grocery stores.
This difference is critical to how Israel responds to the inescapable fact that F-35 sales to the UAE are very obviously contemplated, if not demanded, by the trilateral U.S.-Israel-UAE agreement. One of the fears that many Israeli security experts have is that states that have open and even warm relations with Israel today may change their postures tomorrow, as demonstrated most prominently by the radical policy shifts toward Israel that Iran and Turkey – once Israel’s two closest regional partners – have undergone with changes in regime and leadership respectively. Israelis also look at Mohammed Morsi’s abbreviated term as president of Egypt and view it as a cautionary tale about how reliant Israel is on a very specific type of government in Cairo, and how the peace treaty with Jordan may only be as durable as the Hashemite monarchy’s reign. While Israel and the UAE are aligned today on a wide set of issues, including the threats posed by Iran, that may change at the drop of a hat. While the UAE currently wants to collaborate technologically with Israel, it may decide tomorrow that it makes more sense to share technological know-how with China or Iran. This is very much a villa in the jungle approach, and one that views equipping a current ally with the world’s most advanced fighter jet as myopic in case that same ally becomes a future foe.
For those who take an iron wall approach, however, it makes sense to view the situation differently. Israel and the UAE have been cooperating on security and economic issues for years. Neither side views the other as a threat, going beyond sharing similar threat perceptions of Iran. Not only has the UAE clearly accepted the fact of Israel’s existence and permanence, it eagerly wants to benefit from robust relationships across an array of sectors. This is Jabotinsky’s theory in practice, demonstrating that Israel’s strength will lead first to a changed mindset in regional adversaries and then to tangible diplomatic gains. In this reading, the UAE is the canary in the coalmine heralding a region that is permanently transforming, and while Israel will always face threats as any powerful state does, this is an important step along a road to a more normal and routine existence. Even leaving aside the point that it will be years before the Emiratis are equipped with and trained on the F-35s and that not all F-35s are created equal, the erosion of Israel’s QME that Emirati F-35s represent must be evaluated in a different light. Not only can the advantage potentially be preserved in other ways, it is a doctrine that should not be viewed as absolute but that must be assessed in the broader regional environment.
The debate inside of Israel about F-35 sales to the UAE has predictably been shaped by Israeli domestic politics rather than by larger questions of doctrine. Netanyahu’s changing claims and explanations about whether or not F-35s are part of the agreement with the UAE, whether or not he has discussed or will discuss the issue with the White House, and whether or not Israel will object to the planes’ sale, along with Benny Gantz’s shifting position on whether Emirati F-35s are an Israeli redline or not, have dominated the news. But there are real questions about Israeli security doctrine implicated by the F-35 issue, along with the underlying philosophy about the nature of Israel’s ultimate disposition with regard to its neighbors.