WASHINGTON — The Trump administration formally notified Congress on Tuesday that it plans to sell F-35 stealth fighters, advanced armed drones and other sophisticated weaponry to the United Arab Emirates, setting up a potential battle with lawmakers in the administration’s final weeks.
The $23 billion arms sale could alter the military balance in the Middle East, eventually allowing the small but powerful emirates to flex greater power in a region of sectarian rivalries and simmering proxy wars.
But top Democratic lawmakers have objected to what they say is a rushed process to cement the deal before the end of the Trump administration, one that short-circuits the normal review process by the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress to consider the wisdom of any weapons sale.
There have been bipartisan efforts in Congress in recent years to scuttle potential arms sales to Persian Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, but some Democratic congressional aides conceded that they were unlikely to get enough Republican support to block the deal.
Still, the process of delivering the weapons takes years, and the sale could be undone by the Biden administration. Several advisers to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. are skeptical of weapons sales to the Gulf Arab nations because of the disastrous, Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties.
The State Department said on Tuesday that the deal included up to 50 F-35 jets, as many as 18 Reaper drones and other precision weapons. Emirati officials have also been pushing to buy EA-18 Growler jets — electronic warfare planes that jam enemy air defenses — but American officials said that request has yet to be approved.
The announcement was long expected, and Trump administration officials in recent months have accelerated the push for the arms deal while completing a diplomatic initiative — known as the Abraham Accords — where the U.A.E. became just the third Arab nation to recognize Israel. In exchange, Israel has pledged to suspend annexation of occupied West Bank territory.
Administration officials have denied that the arms package was a direct reward for the emirates’ role in the diplomatic breakthrough, which is part of a broader White House initiative to get Arab nations to normalize ties with Israel — and to further isolate Iran. At the same time, they did not dispute that the momentum on the arms sale, after years of requests by the emirates to buy the F-35, was linked to the diplomatic initiative.
In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo linked the two issues in his announcement on Tuesday, saying that the emirates’ “historic agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape.”
With its ability to elude enemy air defenses, the F-35 is one of the most advanced weapons in the American arsenal and a fighter jet long coveted by nations around the world.
Israel, which has the F-35, has long tried to block any other country in the Middle East from getting it. But American officials said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel privately went along with Emirati arms sale — despite publicly saying later that he opposed it — as part of the broader push to get the U.A.E. to recognize Israel, which gave Mr. Netanyahu a diplomatic victory.
Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, American policy has been to ensure that Israel maintains a so-called qualitative military edge over its Arab neighbors. The congressional definition says that the United States must ensure that Israel is able to defeat “any credible conventional military threat” while sustaining minimal casualties.
Last month, two Democratic senators introduced a bill that would block delivery of the F-35 to the emirates until the White House reports to Congress that the arms deal will not present new risks to American troops or erode Israel’s military advantage in the Middle East.
The Emirati arms deal has been championed by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has been central to the diplomatic negotiations to get the U.A.E. and other Arab nations to recognize Israel. The Trump administration has negotiated similar arrangements with Bahrain and Sudan.
Edward Wong contributed reporting.