Defense Ministry chief to visit Croatia, as arms deal flounders

Zagreb threatening to nix $500 million purchase of F-16s unless Washington allows Israel to include sophisticated upgrades to fighter jets

Defense Ministry Director General Udi Adam. (Flash90)
Defense Ministry Director General Udi Adam. (Flash90)

The director-general of the Defense Ministry, Udi Adam, will reportedly travel to Croatia this week, in a bid to resolve tensions over a floundering $500 million arms deal.

Israeli and Croatian officials told Channel 10 news on Sunday that Adam will arrive on Wednesday in Zagreb, where he is expected to apologize for the setbacks in the purchase of 12 used American-made F-16s from Israel.

Israel made a tentative deal to sell the upgraded F-16 Barak fighters to Croatia last March, pending US approval for allowing the jets to go to a third party.

The deal, worth $500 million, was to be the Balkan nation’s biggest arms purchase since splitting from former Yugoslavia in the 1990s war.

But Washington objected to the sale, saying Israel needed to strip off the upgrades made to the US-made jets after Israel acquired the planes some 30 years ago. Israel upgraded the planes with sophisticated electronic and radar systems, which was a crucial factor in Croatia’s decision to buy the planes from Israel, rather than from the US.

Israeli Air Force F-16I on the tarmac during the Blue Flag air exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 8, 2017. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Last week, after months of delay, the Croatian defense ministry gave Israel a deadline of January 11 to clear the deal with the State Department.

Croatian Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic said that Israel provided guarantees during the contract bidding process that US officials would green-light the sale.

If Croatia is not able to buy the upgraded jets in the original deal, the government will cancel the order, the ministry said.

“We are not happy that this happened,” Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said last Wednesday. “The government firmly stands by its decision… to realize only the offer as accepted” in March, he said.

Relations between the Trump administration and Israel have been very close, particularly on defense issues. But the sale of the jets to Croatia appears to be one of the rare disagreements between the two countries. They were not overcome even after a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week in Brazil, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Brasilia, on January 1, 2019. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

A senior Israeli official told Channel 10 that Israel “received almost everything it wanted” during the meeting with Pompeo, except approval to sell the upgraded planes.

Last month, the TV news station reported that the Trump administration was angry with Israel for including the advanced electronic systems in an effort to secure the Croatian tender.

Israeli officials told the network that the US believes Israel would unfairly profit from the sale, as the American-made fighter jets are not supposed to be resold to a third-party without State Department approval.

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