WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel privately went along with a plan for the Trump administration to sell advanced weapons to the United Arab Emirates, despite publicly saying later that he opposed the arms deal, according to officials familiar with the negotiations.
Mr. Netanyahu chose not to try to block the deal as he took part in a broader effort in recent months to secure a diplomatic breakthrough normalizing relations between Israel and the Emirates, the officials said. President Trump announced the initiative to great fanfare last month, without mentioning the arms discussions that were proceeding on a parallel track.
But after news of the arms sale became public late last month, the Israeli prime minister repeatedly denied that he had given assurances to the Trump administration that Israel would not oppose the Emirati arms deal. The officials said Mr. Netanyahu’s public statements were false. He then stopped publicly complaining about the proposed arms sale after a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jerusalem last week that brought the Israeli prime minister back in line, the officials said.
The White House has accelerated its push in recent weeks to sell a package of cutting-edge weapons to the Emirates, including F-35 fighter jets and Reaper drones. The deal also includes EA-18G Growler jets — electronic warfare planes that pave the way for stealth attacks by jamming enemy air defenses. That element of the package has not previously been reported.
The United Arab Emirates has long sought more advanced weapons, but Israelis have feared a shift in the balance of military power in the Middle East. A public admission of agreement by Mr. Netanyahu would have most likely prompted an outcry in Israel, as the disclosure of the proposed arms sale did, including from members of Mr. Netanyahu’s own cabinet.
Mr. Trump’s announcement on Aug. 13 of the diplomatic breakthrough came as Mr. Netanyahu was struggling to manage multiple crises: the coronavirus pandemic, a fraying governing coalition with political rivals, tense budget negotiations and an ongoing corruption trial.
American officials are careful to insist that the new push to sell the weapons to the Emiratis is not a direct reward for their role in the agreement, in which the Emirates became the third Arab nation to recognize Israel in exchange for Israel suspending plans to annex occupied West Bank territory. But they do not dispute that after years of American refusals to sell F-35s to the Emiratis, the change in position is linked to the diplomatic initiative.
The arms deal could face significant resistance in Congress; by law, weapons sales must not weaken Israel’s military edge in the Middle East. But Trump administration officials have discussed bypassing a critical part of the lawmakers’ review process, which might improve their chances of pushing through the arms sales before the election in November.
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in a statement that it “is not true” that Mr. Netanyahu gave approval to American officials for a weapons deal involving F-35s. He added that he was confident the Trump administration “is fully committed to maintaining” Israel’s military advantage in the region.
The State Department declined to comment. A spokesman for the National Security Council did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Dozens of Emirati officials traveled to Washington last week to meet with counterparts at the Pentagon and the State Department to discuss the arms package and their diplomatic initiative with Israel.
Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said officials from all three nations had told him that Mr. Netanyahu had given approval for the arms sale, but he had then publicly denounced it because of the anger that erupted in Israel, including from defense officials, when the quiet arrangement became public.
“I’ve heard it from parties on all three sides that he gave a green light on this,” Mr. Ibish said, adding that Mr. Netanyahu had previously indicated to the Emiratis and the Americans that “there would not be substantive and categorical opposition.”
He said the Emiratis were stunned at Mr. Netanyahu’s public disavowal. They responded by canceling an Aug. 21 meeting with American and Israeli officials at the United Nations. (Axios first reported the episode.)
But the Emiratis calmed down after being reassured that the sale would remain on track. “They’ve come to understand there’s a lot of Kabuki theater in all this,” Mr. Ibish added.
The Emirates and Saudi Arabia have a close relationship with the White House. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, views the two nations as important in efforts — which thus far have failed — to broker a peace deal between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Moreover, Mr. Trump has embraced them as significant buyers of American weapons despite resistance in Congress over the killing of thousands of civilians in the Saudi-led air war in Yemen, often with American bombs.
Some Pentagon and State Department officials are uncomfortable with the influence that the Emiratis wield within the White House and National Security Council, and they were unhappy that Emirati military officials received a classified briefing about the F-35 in July.
Some members of Congress and their aides have expressed similar worries, pointing to the Emirati military’s role in the catastrophic Yemen war. The Emirates withdrew most of its forces last year, but it has deployed jets in the Libyan civil war, raising new concerns among American lawmakers.
Trump administration officials say the détente between the Emirates and Israel — and possibly future deals between Israel and other Arab nations — are also part of a wider effort to counter Iran. Administration officials have tried to placate Israeli concerns about an Arab nation getting the F-35 by emphasizing that the Emirates, like Israel, is an avowed enemy of Iran and that strengthening the Emirati military will help Israel’s security.
The regional moves have urgency in Washington because Mr. Trump’s strategists see efforts to bolster Israel as helping strengthen support from evangelical Christian voters as he seeks re-election.
Advisers also fear that if the president loses to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the next administration would halt the deal.
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported last month that the Emirati arms deal was directly tied to the peace agreement with Israel. In response, Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued a 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.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office said Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, a former chief of the Israeli military, 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.”
On Monday, Mr. Kushner was aboard a ceremonial flight between Israel and the Emirates. He addressed the arms deal after touching down in Abu Dhabi.
“The military relationship America has with the U.A.E. is very special — just like the relationship between Israel and America,” he said. He added that the United States was committed to maintaining Israel’s military advantage in the Middle East even as it sold advanced weaponry to the Emirates.
Mr. Pompeo traveled last week to Israel, the Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Sudan. The State Department said in a statement that he and Mr. Netanyahu spoke about countering Iran and establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. In that meeting and in a separate one with Mr. Gantz, the department said, Mr. Pompeo reiterated Washington’s commitment to the security of Israel.
The State Department has yet to notify Congress of a new proposed arms package to the Emirates. But some lawmakers and aides have already quietly signaled disapproval to the administration after news reports in August detailed the proposal, officials said.
Many lawmakers from both parties are likely to oppose the package if the Israeli government does not officially support it. Some aides also say it would take months for the United States to take mandatory steps to technically ensure that the proposed weapons do not compromise Israel’s military edge in the region.
The EA-18G Growler, made by Boeing and displayed in November at the Dubai Air Show, is the Navy’s most advanced electronic attack platform. It can blind radars and communications systems, operates an advanced radar for locating targets and can carry long-range missiles. Australia is the only other nation that has the jet.
Its sale to an Arab nation would be certain to raise questions about whether it could be used to evade Israel’s air defenses in a conflict.
Analysts say Mr. Trump could help get Israeli officials and U.S. legislators on board with the sales to the Emirates by offering to provide other advanced weapons to Israel.
“The president thinks like a salesman, and this is what he wants in the Middle East,” Mr. Ibish said.
Trump administration officials could decide to bypass the informal notification process in Congress, which some have discussed backing out of altogether. Some lawmakers have used that process to hold up arms shipments to Gulf nations, mainly because of civilian casualties.
Last year, Mr. Pompeo sidestepped one hold by declaring an “emergency” over Iranian activity and pushing the sales through, infuriating lawmakers.