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Israeli Purchase of Fighter Jets Seen as Litmus Test for Continued US Support

F-35 fighter jet (file photo)

F-35 fighter jet (file photo)

Israel is moving ahead with plans to purchase nearly $3 billion in advanced stealth fighter jets from the United States aerospace firm, Lockheed Martin. The purchase would come as Israel considers options including a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Israeli defense officials say the purchase of 20 next-generation F-35 fighter jets is part of a routine overhaul of the country's air defenses.

However, the announcement from the Israeli defense minister's office this week came as Israeli leaders hold top secret meetings on how to react to the Iranian nuclear threat.

Israeli intelligence believes Iran is close to developing a nuclear weapon for possible use against Israel. Iran's leadership has called for the destruction of the Jewish State.

Military experts in Israel have long warned that a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites could likely trigger an extended war.

Retired Major General Eitan Ben Eliyahu, a former head of the Israeli Air Force, said Israel needs to prepare for a drawn-out conflict.

"The timetable shows that the first delivery will arrive in Israel no earlier than 2015," he said. "We all know that the threat is that Iran will have a nuclear weapon much earlier than that. On the other hand, this is not just a one-time or a short-time threat. We have to consider all options, what will be in the future. This is why we need it even though the first delivery will take place not earlier than 2015."

The deal would come at a time when many in Israel have doubts over U.S. support of the Jewish State. Relations between the White House and Israel have deteriorated since President Barack Obama took office, partly because of Mr. Obama's pressure on Israel to stop construction in the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

Eliyahu and other observers say Washington's approval of the fighter jet sale will be seen here as a litmus test of continued U.S. support.

"When it does [approve the deal], this is a very clear indication that we are together to secure the State of Israel and to secure that there is no dramatic change against Israel in the balance of power and the balance of threats in the Middle East. And I think that even the approval - if not the delivery - is a very clear signal which indicates the commitment of the U.S. government and the cooperation between the two countries to secure Israel and to secure the peace in the Middle East," he said.

Israel receives billions of dollars each year in military aid from the United States.

Earlier this month, the U.S. announced that it plans to sell advanced F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia but won't equip them with long-range weapons systems and other arms whose inclusion was strongly opposed by Israel.