In 2010, as the United States was completing a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the Israelis quietly received an additional squadron of F-35 jets as a condition for publicly supporting the deal.
The behind-the-scenes negotiation is disclosed in Duty, the new memoir by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served between 2007 and 2011. In the book, he describes tense meetings with Ehud Barak, then Israel’s defense minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister.
“What about a counterbalancing investment in our military? How do we compensate on the Israeli side?” Gates quotes Netanyahu as asking him. “Exasperated, I shot back that no U.S. administration had done more, in concrete ways, for Israel’s strategic defense than Obama’s,” Gates writes.
In the end, Obama agreed to sell Israel an additional 20 F-35 jets, the advanced Joint Strike Fighters that have run into a series of cost overruns in recent years. Israel in exchange agreed not to publicly object to the arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
According to Gates, Barak and Netanyahu both argued the arms sale threatened a longstanding commitment from the U.S. to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge over the militaries of the region. But Gates warned that if Washington did not sell the fighters to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom would purchase aircraft from France or Russia, two countries who “wouldn’t give a second thought to Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge,’” he wrote.
Gates writes that he told Barak that Israel should welcome the sale to Saudi Arabia of the less advanced F-15 jets because the two countries shared a common enemy in Iran. “I urged that if Israel couldn’t see Saudi Arabia as a potential ally against Iran, he should at least tactically concede that its hostility to Iran was in Israel’s interest,” Gates writes that he told Barak.
A former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on Middle East security issues said Israel’s concerns were based not so much on the current ruling family in Saudi Arabia, but rather worries about what might happen if the House of Saud lost power to a more radical regime.
The 2010 episode Gates recounts helps explain recent public remarks from the former defense secretary that have been critical of Israel. In 2012 for example, Gates warned publicly in a speech that it would be disastrous if Israel were to unilaterally strike Iran . Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg in 2011 reported that Gates regarded Israel as an ungrateful ally and felt Israel did very little to reciprocate the Obama administration’s generosity to the world’s only Jewish state.
This generosity included the sale of bunker-buster munitions, which are bombs that burrow into the earth, to Israel as well as financing the development of the Iron Dome rocket-defense system.
Gates ends the chapter about the additional F-35s with his own view that “I believe Israel’s strategic situation is worsening, its own actions contributing to its isolation.” Specifically, he cites the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas military leader who Mossad agents killed in Dubai on Jan. 19, 2010. “The Israelis’ assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai in January 2010, however morally justified, was strategically stupid because the incompetently run operation was quickly discovered and Israel fingered as responsible, thus costing Israel the quiet cooperation of the UAE on security matters,” he wrote.
Gates also chastised the Netanyahu government for its attack on activists aboard the Turkish flotilla known as the Mavi Marmara, which he blames for rupturing Israel’s military relationship with Turkey.
“As Israel’s neighbors acquire ever more sophisticated weapons and their publics become ever more hostile, I, as a very strong friend and supporter of Israel, believe Jerusalem needs to think anew about its strategic environment,” Gates wrote. “That would require developing stronger relationships with governments that, while not allies, share Israel’s concerns in the region, including those about Iran and the growing political influence of Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring.”