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Despite Israel's Objections, UAE Seeks To Buy U.S. Fighter Jets

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, the first Israeli commercial airliner landed in the United Arab Emirates, and both countries are celebrating new diplomatic ties. But the UAE is focused on a different airplane. It wants to override Israeli objections and buy the F-35 from the U.S. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

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FALAH AL QAHTANI: Good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: A senior Emirati defense official welcomed President Trump's son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, at an Emirati air base that hosts U.S. troops.

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AL QAHTANI: Mr. Jared Kushner, distinguished delegation.

ESTRIN: Major General Falah Al Qahtani ticked off the U.S. and Emirati military's joint efforts.

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AL QAHTANI: Recently, we have sent our troops to Afghanistan to work with U.S. force to fight ISIS.

ESTRIN: Afterward, Kushner met the Emirates' first female fighter pilot. They posed for photos in front of a sleek F-16 fighter jet marked with the Emirati flag. Nearby, like unacknowledged elephants in a room, stood two gray F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The U.S. keeps those stealth aircraft at this base. The UAE wants some of its own. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Bader Al-Saif.

BADER AL-SAIF: Having a case of non-belligerency between Israel and the UAE is a kind of argument that now the Emirates will push forth to ensure that they can get that deal with the F-35.

ESTRIN: The Emirati military has fought in conflicts in Yemen and Libya and wants to enhance its standing as a regional power. But the F-35 issue is sensitive. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has F-35s. And despite the new peace deal, it publicly opposes the U.S. selling the Emirates those jets. Former Israeli defense official Amos Gilad says Israel needs to protect its military superiority for whatever geopolitical changes come in the future.

AMOS GILAD: I am worried about the technology and the precedent. Why UAE gets it and not Saudi Arabia, Egypt and so on? And we might be surrounded by coalitions that is not inferior than our air force. That’s impossible.

ESTRIN: The U.S. is committed by law to protecting Israel's qualitative military edge, or QME. Kushner told reporters that the U.S. can keep the Israelis and the Emiratis happy.

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JARED KUSHNER: The military relationship that America has with the United Arab Emirates is very special. Just as the relationship that America has with Israel is incredibly special. And so the QME is something that can be respected while also advancing our military relationship with the United Arab Emirates.

ESTRIN: Kushner says discussions on the F-35 will take time. His priority is to quickly finalize the treaty between Israel and the UAE and try to get more Arab countries to establish ties with Israel. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Al Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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