WHILE PROSPECTS OF reviving the stalled Middle East peace process appeared to have received a boost with the May 17 election of Ehud Barak as Israel's new prime minister, both Israel and Syria looked to strengthen their militaries in July. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad reportedly explored resuming arms buys from Russia, its long-time supplier, during a July 5-6 trip to Moscow. Less than two weeks later, Barak told U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, in a long-awaited decision, that Israel would use U.S. military aid funds to purchase 50 F-16I fighter jets, with an option for 60 more.
In his first visit to Russia since 1991, Assad met with President Boris Yeltsin and other top defense and arms officials. Damascus, which owes Moscow at least $11 billion for past Soviet arms purchases, wants to upgrade its largely outdated weaponry by purchasing advanced aircraft, tanks and anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. However, no discussions or deals were publicly confirmed.
The U.S. State Department said on July 6 that it was "very concerned" about possible Russian arms deals with Syria, a country Washington classifies as a state-sponsor of terrorism. U.S. law proscribes appropriation of Foreign Assistance Act funds for governments that export "lethal military equipment" to countries designated as state-sponsors of terrorism. However, in March, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright waived that provision for $90 million in financial assistance to Moscow, despite Russia's sale of anti-tank missiles to Syria. Instead, Washington imposed sanctions on three Russian companies involved in the deal. (See ACT, March 1999.)
On his first U.S. visit as Israeli prime minister, Barak informed Cohen on July 16 that Israel would purchase 50 F-16I fighters for $2.5 billion. As part of the deal, Israel can opt to buy 60 more for $2 billion within two years of signing the contract. Delivery of the fighters would start approximately 42 months after contract signature, expected later this year.
Israel has received 260 F-16s of various models and already has the largest fleet of F-16s in the world after the United States. This will be the first sale to Israel of the F-16I model, which will be equipped with additional fuel tanks to allow for extended range, as well as updated avionics and cockpit displays.
Lockheed's F-16I prevailed over Boeing's F-15I in the Israeli fighter competition, partly because approximately 25 percent of the F-16I package will be supplied by Israeli companies. Moreover, the F-15 costs roughly twice as much as the F-16, and the F-15's advantage of being a long-range fighter, its most attractive feature, was overcome by the addition of the extra fuel tanks on the F-16I.
The F-16I fighters will be bought with funds from Israel's annual U.S. military aid package of more than $1.86 billion. In a July 19 joint statement by President Clinton and Barak, the two leaders said that, subject to congressional approval, the annual military aid package will grow to $2.4 billion over the next decade as U.S. economic assistance is phased out.
Clinton further agreed to fund Israel's acquisition of a third Arrow battery to counter tactical ballistic missiles and to expand U.S.-Israeli cooperation on developing new anti-ballistic missile technologies and systems. Clinton repeated past pledges that Washington was committed to maintaining Israel's qualitative security edge.
Details of a separate $1.2 billion military aid package for Israeli implementation of the Wye River Memorandum, which calls for a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, were also worked out. Both houses of Congress, however, opted in August not to include any funds for implementing the Wye accord in their foreign aid bills.