Jerusalem – The Middle East Newsline has confirmed that the United States has agreed to raise the level of defense relations with Israel.
In that context, the Bush administration has dispatched Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Israel, who will arrive tonight for meetings on strategic issues with his counter part, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
This would be the first time since 1999 that a U.S. defense secretary visited Israel. Gates’s predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, toured the Middle East several times, but never entered Israel. In June 2006, Rumsfeld was meant to visit Israel, but this was canceled at the last minute.
The Gates visit was said to have signaled the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Israel in wake of an unmanned aerial vehicle upgrade project for China in 2004.
The Pentagon, angered that Israel tried to conceal the project, severed high-level ties, blocked sensitive exports and denied Israel access to the Joint Strike Fighter program. Israel was not believed to have completed the Harpy UAV upgrade for Beijing.
In September 2005, Israel and the United States agreed to consult on proposed arms exports by the Jewish state. Israel also pledged to make its export approval process transparent, legislation that has not yet been approved by the Knesset.
Gates was expected to discuss a proposed U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia, a deal which caused great concern on the part of Israeli defense officials because Saudi Arabia remains in a state of war with Israel.
Senior Israeli officials have warned that Saudi requests for advanced F-15 and F-16 fighter jets as well as air-to-ground weaponry could erode Israel’s qualitative military edge over its Arab neighbors. Congress has also expressed concern over the proposed Saudi deal.
“We expect there will be sweeteners to overcome Israeli objections [to the Saudi deal],” an official told the Middle East Newsline. “There are quite a few things in the pipeline that have been held up.”
The official did not elaborate, but defense sources cited Israel’s requests for advanced airborne weapons and technology, approval for Israeli subsystems on the F-35, and an expanded intelligence exchange on threats in the Middle East.
David Bedein can be reached at Media@actcom.co.il. His Web site is www.IsraelBehindTheNews.com
©The Bulletin 2007