(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The agreement to normalize relations between the UAE and Israel, two key American allies in the Middle East, is arguably President Donald Trump’s most significant foreign-policy achievement. But it has a better chance of being fully realized if Joe Biden is elected in November.
The deal is the one instance in which Trump can plausibly claim that his personalized and transactional approach has achieved something traditional American diplomacy couldn’t. It will have a cascading effect: Bahrain has announced a similar arrangement with Israel, and there are indications other Arab states are interested in following suit.
The Israeli-Emirati agreement hit an early hitch over weapons sales. This seems to have been papered over for now, but it could re-emerge as a major complication if Trump is reelected. The UAE was promised access to F-35 fighter jets, EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, MQ-9 Reaper drones and other advanced American weaponry. It hasn’t been allowed to purchase these in recent years because of an American commitment to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” or QME, in the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave both US and UAE officials the very strong impression in private that he wouldn’t object to these sales in the context of normalization. But after this set off a political firestorm in Israel, he declared he would fight the sales.
Very quickly, however, Israeli officials realized the Trump administration is keen on the sales. QME isn’t an Israeli veto on American weapons sales, as presidents as far back as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan demonstrated by allowing Arab nations to buy cutting-edge aircraft such as F-15s, over Israeli objections.
So, the Israelis have come up with a solution: The Emiratis can have the weapons systems they want, if Israel gets even more high-tech weaponry, including the F-22 Raptor, which hasn’t been sold to any other country.
But even if Israel doesn’t oppose the sales to the UAE, Democrats in Congress still might. Some on the far left of the party are skeptical about Israel, hostile to Gulf Arab countries and, more generally, highly suspicious of international weapons sales.
If Biden wins, centrist Democrats will be ascendant. He has welcomed the Emirati-Israeli deal, and will not hold up the sales. But if Trump is reelected, and Democrats keep their majority in the House of Representatives — and perhaps even take the Senate — the picture would be quite different.
The Democrats would have a partisan incentive to try and derail Trump’s signature foreign-policy achievement, and the left wing will gain sway over the party’s agenda. Already one senior Democratic lawmaker, Debbie Wasserman Schultz has vowed to block the sales.
Israel, keen to please its new Emirati friends, could conceivably lobby the Democrats not to stand in the way. But the party’s left wing is less than enamored of Netanyahu. The issue could easily descend into a raw partisan and ideological fight based entirely on domestic considerations.
Depending on the balance of power in Congress, that could force Trump to again turn to esoteric loopholes he did in 2019 to push through weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE over bipartisan congressional objections. He had to protect that move with by exercising a rare veto.
Congress could again try to block him on new sales to the Emiratis, either with legislation or through the courts. This would set off a protracted and ugly standoff — one of many, no doubt — between a second-term Trump and an angry Democratic Congress.
So while the Israel-UAE deal is Trump’s foreign policy baby, a President Biden would be in a much better position to deliver it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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