on the hill

Trump admin officials testify before Senate panel on UAE F-35 sale

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed-door briefing with R. Clarke Cooper, David Schenker and Michael Cutrone

Lance Cheung

Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) in the USDA Forest Service Headquarters, Yates Building Fire Desk, on Sept 26, 2017.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee received a closed briefing on Monday evening about the Trump administration’s plan to sell F-35 fighter jets and other weaponry to the United Arab Emirates, as congressional Democrats scramble to slow or block the sale. 

Assistant Secretary of State R. Clarke Cooper, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and Michael Cutrone, who served as Vice President Mike Pence’s top national security aide for South Asia and is now head of the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, testified behind closed doors. 

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress that the administration approved a $23.3 billion arms deal with the UAE that includes the sale of 50 F-35 fighter jets and 18 advanced armed drone systems. 

Though Congress is not required to approve the sale, any vote to block the agreement would need enough votes to override an expected presidential veto. The Senate Appropriations Committee included a requirement for certification as part of the 2021 spending bill. 

On Monday, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) announced his support for the sale and urged his former colleagues to approve the Trump administration’s deal. “The U.S. government has made a bipartisan commitment to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge while also providing technology to important partners like the Emirates that are actively contributing to the expansion of peace in the region,” Lieberman, the current chairman of the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, explained in a statement. 

Lieberman added that the UAE has been a longtime U.S. ally, and that the recent developments between the UAE, Israel and Bahrain, advanced through the Abraham Accords, “should be nurtured and expanded by both political parties in Washington in the years ahead.” 

But there are concerted efforts, primarily from congressional Democrats, to block the deal. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a Senate bill aimed at blocking or delaying the F-35 sale, and House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced a similar bill in the House. Menendez, along with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) also introduced a series of bipartisan resolutions expressing disapproval of the arms sales.

Israeli leaders have expressed their support for a U.S. arms deal with the UAE, after reportedly receiving a guarantee from Washington that the sale would not affect its qualitative military edge. Israel’s outgoing ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, said recently that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz — “who don’t agree on a lot of things within Israel” — agreed that the sale “would not violate the U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, and we feel very confident about that.” 

In a pre-election interview with Jewish Insider, Tony Blinken, who last week was announced as President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for secretary of state, suggested that a Biden administration “would have to take a hard look at it to understand exactly what’s involved,” and noted the commitment the Obama administration gave to Israel in 2015 that Israel would be the only Middle Eastern country allowed to purchase the jets.

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