Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached an historic agreement last month, making the UAE only the third Arab country to make peace with the Jewish state. Washington and Jerusalem hope that other Arab states will follow the UAE’s example and extend the olive branch to Israel too.
But that may depend, in part, on whether the U.S. and Israel act quickly to demonstrate tangible benefits for the UAE in taking this step toward lasting peace.
To be sure, peace should be its own reward.
But uneasy Arab governments need to demonstrate to their people the benefits of making peace with Israel, both in civilian and military sectors. It is in the clear national security interests of the U.S. and Israel to help the UAE do just that.
Thankfully, some bilateral efforts are already well underway. Israel and the UAE reportedly signed several agreements Sept. 1 focused on financial services, joint investments, and countering terror financing and money laundering. The two sides are also exploring potential joint ventures related to tourism, health, agriculture, water, space, science and trade.
Those efforts should continue. But with the Islamic Republic of Iran as a neighbor, the UAE can be forgiven for also prioritizing national security considerations.
Accordingly, the UAE has been interested for years in acquiring cutting-edge military systems such as the F-35, the world’s most advanced fighter. Both the United States and Israel fly the F-35, conducting two recent joint exercises clearly designed to send a deterrent message to Tehran. American F-35s also regularly rotate through Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE.
But as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly announced, Israel objects to the sale and remains concerned that providing the UAE with the F-35 would undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge, an important policy also codified in U.S. law.
Washington will resolve whether the UAE receives the F-35 in time one way or the other. But in the meantime, there are many other opportunities related to national security that are less controversial and can be accomplished more quickly.
As is often wise, it may be best to start small.
The Iron Union military exercise that the U.S. military and the UAE Land Forces have conducted for years offers one such promising opportunity. In the exercise, U.S. service members join their Emirati counterparts to form an integrated command post and conduct weeks of combined training and planning. They then conduct a combined arms live-fire exercise.
The last Iron Union was apparently scaled down due to COVID-19. However, the exercise has traditionally included joint fire controllers, mortars and cannon artillery, as well as U.S. Army and UAE High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. The exercise has also generally included a command element, air support and infantry units with associated support.
This builds individual and unit readiness, as well as U.S.-UAE interoperability and trust.
Here’s an interesting idea: Why not invite Jerusalem to send a unit or two from the Israel Defense Forces to attend the Iron Union exercise later this year?
IDF officers and soldiers could participate in the planning and training. An IDF artillery company could also participate in the live-fire exercise, while IDF intelligence and surveillance assets can support the battlefield picture assessment. If it is too early for such cooperation, or maybe too late to add an outside participant, IDF officers could attend and act as observers at a minimum.
Regardless of any decision related to the F-35 or other systems, these modest first steps could form the foundation for Arab military cooperation with the IDF that could grow in size and scope each year, including against the common enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In addition to the military benefits, the IDF’s involvement in Iron Union would show the Arab world how the UAE’s security is already benefiting from making peace with Israel. And what an important diplomatic and historical achievement it would be to have Arab, Israeli and American soldiers training shoulder to shoulder in the name of peace and security.
It would send a public, unified and unmistakable message of deterrence to Tehran. It would also begin to put to rest once and for all the ridiculous public fiction that Israel — rather than the Islamic Republic of Iran — is the threat to Arab security.
And perhaps in doing so, it might increase the chances other Arab countries will follow the UAE’s lead in making peace with Israel. Key Israeli military and political leaders would appear to welcome the opportunity for the IDF to participate in Iron Union, but Israel would need an invitation from the U.S. and the UAE.
In discussing the last Iron Union exercise, a U.S. Army officer said that the exercise enabled “relationship building and cooperative training” that promoted “greater security of the Gulf Region.”
That’s exactly what including the IDF in Iron Union would do for the Middle East.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served in the U.S. Army as an officer. Jacob Nagel is a visiting senior fellow at FDD and a visiting professor at the Technion Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served in the Israel Defense Forces and is a former chief of Israel’s National Security Council. He was also national security adviser to the Israeli prime minister.