POLITICS

Major Jewish Group Joins Fight Against Trump's Massive Middle East Weapons Sale

Exclusive: J Street backs a bipartisan attempt to block a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates ― a deal Trump touts as good for Israel.

J Street, a prominent Jewish American organization working on Middle East issues, is joining the growing push to stop President Donald Trump from sending $23 billion in military arms and equipment to the United Arab Emirates. The group’s opposition, which has not been previously reported, bolsters the effort to block the deal through a congressional vote later this week.

“We oppose this arms sale and urge Senators to vote for the bipartisan resolutions rejecting it introduced by Senators [Bob] Menendez, Chris Murphy and [Rand] Paul,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told HuffPost in an email. “The sale of a massive quantity of such destructive weapons systems to the UAE would only further fuel an escalating arms race in a region already suffering from destabilizing wars that endanger civilians and undermine U.S. interests.”

Menendez (D-N.J.), Murphy (D-Conn.), Paul (R-Ky.) and other opponents of Trump’s dangerous deal with the UAE could benefit from the added support. Congress has 30 days from when the State Department notified it of the weapons transfer to vote to block the sale. The Senate is expected to vote on resolutions opposing the arms deal on Dec. 10 or 11, just within that 30-day window. Those resolutions will need support from all Democrats and a handful of Republican senators to pass. If they do, the Democratic-led House is all but guaranteed to immediately take them up and pass them as well.

While Trump is almost certain to then veto the legislation ― as he has previously done to defend UAE ally Saudi Arabia ― votes against the deal would be a major rebuke of the UAE government’s policies and would send a message to President-elect Joe Biden, who could halt the weapons shipments.

J Street’s decision, in particular, to oppose the deal is highly significant because of the group’s status as a pro-Israel voice that’s respected by progressives, mainstream politicians and even some hawkish figures.

Trump aides and supporters of the deal are framing it as beneficial to Israel by tying it to the UAE’s agreement to normalize relations with Israel this fall. Republicans have repeatedly tried to smear Democrats as anti-Israel ― and, by extension, anti-Semitic ― for assailing the president’s unprecedented steps to promote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and undermine the traditional Israeli peace process with the Palestinians. J Street’s opposition strengthens the Democrats’ argument that a vote against the arms deal has nothing to do with prejudice.

The move by J Street also adds to the sense of momentum around the campaign against the deal. On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost that he will oppose it ― putting another strong pro-Israel voice behind the push and signaling that all 48 members of his Democratic caucus will likely vote that way. 

The effort then only needs two more GOP votes to join with Rand Paul. Activists against the deal see Republican Sens. Todd Young (Ind.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) as potentially open to breaking with Trump on the issue, as are their GOP colleagues Susan Collins (Maine), Jerry Moran (Kansas), Steve Daines (Mont.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) to a lesser extent.

A spokesperson for Young declined to comment on his thinking. Spokespeople for the other Republican senators did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.

President Donald Trump held a high-profile ceremony at the White House in September with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Neta
President Donald Trump held a high-profile ceremony at the White House in September with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (far left) and United Arab Emirates foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed (far right) to celebrate his "peace deals." He announced a major weapons sale to the UAE less than two months later.

Trump allies contend that the UAE weapons deal is good for Israel because it would effectively seal the Arab country’s recognition of the Jewish nation in September. The president sold that step as a historic peace accord even though the two nations had never been at war and the agreement did little to address Israel’s long-running conflict with the Palestinians.

Critics of the UAE sale are using two main arguments against it.

The first is rooted in security: They note that the deal includes highly sophisticated technology that the UAE does not presently possess, namely the F-35 fighter jet and armed U.S. drones. They say that because of the Middle Eastern country’s close ties with China and Russia, sharing that equipment with the UAE risks revealing U.S. secrets and proprietary technology to two major rivals. They also point out that the arms deal will change the balance of power in the Middle East in a way that could ultimately harm Israel. The U.S. is committed by law to maintaining a military edge for that country compared to its neighbors.

The second argument concerns human rights and global stability: The UAE is involved in brutal military interventions in Yemen and Libya, where it has used airstrikes, proxy forces and technology like Chinese armed drones to expand its influence, harming civilians and worsening civil wars in the process.

“The U.S. goal in the region should be to reduce tensions and end violence, not to ratchet them up,” Ben-Ami told HuffPost. He also highlighted the risk to Israel’s regional military superiority, calling it “a cornerstone of Israel’s security that J Street steadfastly supports.”

Israeli analysts and officials have expressed similar concerns. Earlier this year, a senior Israeli air force officer told The New York Times of worries that the UAE could deploy the F-35s against their country.

While proponents hoped the connection to the Israel-UAE normalization agreement ― known as the Abraham Accords ― might help shield the arms deal, it now appears that won’t have the effect they wanted. 

Another big sign Trump’s argument isn’t working, a congressional aide told HuffPost, is that there’s little evidence of lobbying in favor of the sale by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, another highly influential pro-Israel group that is less dovish than J Street. Meanwhile, lawmakers close to AIPAC are also questioning the deal.

“If Beijing can access and reproduce the technology for the stealthiest, most advanced fighter jet in the world and sell it to whomever, then that’s a direct threat to our own national security and to Israel’s,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) told HuffPost last month.