U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper pledged Tuesday to help maintain Israel's military superiority in the Middle East, amid its concerns over a possible U.S. sale of advanced F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates.
"A cornerstone of our defense relationship is preserving Israel's qualitative military edge in the region," Esper said as he welcomed Defense Minister Benny Gantz to the Pentagon.
"The United States is committed to that, and the Department of Defense is committed to that imperative. We will continue to support the longstanding U.S. policy to maintain Israel's security," said Esper.
The question of whether the U.S. will sell the advanced fighters to the UAE cast a cloud over the White House signing ceremony last week of the diplomatic normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.
President Donald Trump said at the time that he would have "no problem" selling F-35 warplanes to the Gulf state, despite objections from the Jewish state.
Israel has long opposed the sale of F-35 jets to any U.S. allies in the region including Jordan and Egypt, both of whom already recognize Israel.
Such a sale would erode Israel's military advantage over its neighbors.
Since the 1960s the U.S. has approached the issue on the principle that Israel should maintain a "qualitative military edge" (QME), and the concept has been formalized in legislation from Congress.
But the UAE, which sits astride the strategic Strain of Hormuz across from Iran and is seen by Israel and the United States as a major threat, has sought for several years the advanced fighters.
At the Pentagon, Gantz stressed the importance of the U.S.-Israel partnership in the "unstable" Middle East region, and said the relationship goes beyond "QME".
"As I always said, we have no other United States, nor do you have any other Israel," he said.
"We will continue those relations into the future. And we see those relations as a privilege, but also as a necessity, a continued necessity," Gantz said.