WASHINGTON — The State Department notified Congress Thursday that it backs the proposed sale of as many as 50 F-35A fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates for $10.4 billion, according to four people familiar with the matter.
It's the latest step in the gulf nation's efforts to secure the stealthy Lockheed Martin Corp. fighters, the most advanced U.S.-built aircraft, after it agreed to recognize Israel in an accord brokered by the Trump administration.
Under American law, Israel is guaranteed weapons needed to maintain its "qualitative military edge" over Arab nations. U.S. officials have said they can provide that assurance regardless of F-35 sales without specifying publicly what they would offer Israel.
Israel has committed to buy at least 50 F-35s and in 2017 declared the first of the planes operational.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the outgoing head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that congressional approval was no sure thing. The New York Democrat has tangled with the Trump administration in the past over weapons sales to UAE and Saudi Arabia.
"Rushing these sales is not in anyone's interest," Engel said in a statement. In addition to citing concern about maintaining Israel's edge, Engel said the F-35's "technology also must be safeguarded from our greatest global adversaries. With Russia and China active in the region, the American people will require unimpeachable assurances that our most advanced military capabilities will be protected."
Modernizing the country's military "is an important concern for us, it's an important deterrent for the UAE," UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Mohammed Gargash said in September.
The UAE embassy declined to comment on Thursday, and the Israeli embassy declined immediate comment. But the Israeli government said earlier that the U.S. was upgrading Israel's military capability and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government wouldn't oppose the sale of F-35s to the UAE.
President Donald Trump pushed for Israel and the UAE to reach the diplomatic accord the two sides signed at the White House last month, along with a separate agreement between Israel and Bahrain. The U.S. administration has predicted that more nations will join what the U.S. bills as a "peace process" between Arab nations and Israel.
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