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Qatar might get F-35s despite Israel's objections, Israeli minister says

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Air Force F-35 flies during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli cabinet minister said on Sunday that a U.S. sale of advanced F-35 warplanes to Qatar could be possible despite Israel’s objections to such a deal given the Gulf state’s links to Iran and Palestinian Hamas.

“I have no doubt that if they (Qatar) want it and are willing to pay, sooner or later they will get it,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who sits in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Ynet TV.

“This is a supposition that we must take into account,” he said, arguing that the U.S. administration “ultimately looks out for American interests,” especially in the face of rival stealth jets on offer from Russia and China.

Reuters reported on Oct. 7 that gas-rich Qatar had submitted a formal request to buy the F-35, a Lockheed Martin plane that has so far been supplied only to Israel in the region. Israel, with which Washington consults on such sales, said it would be opposed.

Emphasizing that this position would not change, a spokesman for Steinitz said in a follow-up statement to Reuters that should such a sale go ahead, Israel would demand “appropriate compensation” - an apparent reference to U.S. defence assistance.

U.S. officials have been open to selling the F-35 to the United Arab Emirates after it and Bahrain normalised relations with Israel on Sept. 15. But they have been tight-lipped on Qatar’s bid to buy the jet.

Successive U.S. administrations have sought to preserve Israeli military superiority in the region. Steinitz noted, however, that there had been past U.S. sales of advanced aircraft to Arab countries over Israeli objections.

Israel initially voiced misgivings about the UAE getting F-35s. The Netanyahu government dropped these on Friday after Defence Minister Benny Gantz returned from Washington with new U.S. security guarantees for Israel.

There has been speculation in Israeli media that the Trump administration could hold out the F-35 as an inducement for Qatar to normalise ties with Israel. Qatar has ruled out such a diplomatic move without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Frances Kerry