December 18, 2010
JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel is still looking to acquire another 20 US-built F-35 strike fighters, even though Washington withdrew such an offer after the Jewish state refused a new settlement ban, a senior government official said on Wednesday.
Israel agreed to buy a first tranche of 20 F-35s in August, but had hoped to acquire another 20 free of charge as part of a lucrative deal with the United States aimed at salvaging the peace process.
Under terms of the offer, Washington would have asked Congress to approve 20 additional F-35 fighter planes for Israel, worth some three billion dollars, in exchange for a 90-day moratorium on settlement building — the Palestinian condition for remaining at the table.
But last week, Washington admitted its efforts to secure a new freeze had failed in a move that effectively took the package of incentives off the table and put an end to the prospect of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, the Jewish state is still exploring ways of acquiring an extra 20 stealth fighters, the official acknowledged on Wednesday.
“We ordered 20 F-35s, then, during the talks about freeze, the Americans put 20 additional plane on the table,” he told AFP.
But even before the freeze, Israel had been discussing ways of getting an extra 20 stealth fighters, he said.
“It was discussed during the summer when the United States was talking about the 60 billion dollar weapons deal with Saudi, in the context of the American policy of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge,” he said.
“But nothing was settled. We will continue to discuss it.”
Asked if Israel were expecting to pay for the additional 20 planes, he suggested not. “We were trying to find another arrangement.”
Last week, Ron Dermer, a top adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel’s public radio the government had not ruled out the possibility that Israel would still receive the F-35 planes even though the freeze did not materialise.
Acquisition of the F-35, which is made by US aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin, will give Israel access to stealth technology that will provide it with air superiority over enemy anti-aircraft defences.