WASHINGTON — Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) said on Tuesday that Israel and the US government were close to finalizing a multibillion-dollar defense aid package.
Speaking ahead of an unveiling ceremony Wednesday in Forth Worth, Texas, of the first F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jet coming off the production line for Israeli delivery, Liberman expressed optimism that the agreement could be completed by November this year.
Israel will be the first foreign partner to receive the F-35, which US officials stressed will play a key role in maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East. The aircraft has a range of 2,200 kilometers (1,300 miles approximately) and can carry up to 8,200 kilograms of weapons.
Israel has so far purchased 33 such jets, all set to arrive by 2021, and is expected to purchase more, according to Hebrew media reports.
Liberman will attend the ceremony at Lockheed Martin to formally “receive” the first jet, accompanied by a delegation from the Defense Ministry, the chief of staff of the Israeli Air Force Brigadier General Tal Kalman, Minister without portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi, and senior officials from the US Department of Defense.
“We need a good agreement within an appropriate amount of time and I see no contradiction between the two. I believe we can reach an agreement by November,” said Liberman in reference to the negotiations taking place for a new 10-year defense aid pact to replace the current one, which expires in 2018 and grants the Jewish state more than $3 billion per year.
“There is agreement on most issues. Each side is trying to improve its [negotiation] stance,” he said, according to Army Radio.
Liberman arrived in Washington on Sunday, his first visit to the US as defense minister, to meet with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter with whom he sat down for talks in a “good and friendly atmosphere.”
The defense minister said the two spoke about deepening US-Israeli cooperation in the intelligence and technology fields.
“The fact that we are here as the first to receive the F-35 and the first to make the aircraft operational, that says a lot,” said Liberman on Tuesday.
The first two F-35s, renamed “Adir” (awesome) in Hebrew, will arrive in Israel on December 12, 2016, launching a training period for Israeli pilots, said Kalman, adding that the IAF has passed on a request to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenskot to “buy 17 more F-35 to make up 50 aircraft,” adding that the issue would soon be brought before the cabinet.
The US and Israel started negotiating a renewal of the 10-year defense package last summer, shortly after the completion of the Iranian nuclear deal.
The memorandum of understanding, as the aid package is formally known, is one of the underpinnings of the US-Israel relationship, and is likely to encompass some $5 billion in defense assistance during the next 10-year period.
Separately, a conflict between the administration and the House of Representatives over increased missile defense budgets for Israel in the coming fiscal year is nearing a showdown.
The White House sharply criticized the House of Representatives’s appropriation of additional aid to missile defense programs, listing it among over a dozen reasons that it opposed the defense spending legislation that the House passed last week.
The Pentagon reported Monday that during their bilateral meeting, Liberman and Carter “reaffirmed the strength of the US-Israeli defense relationship and the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”
According to the Department of Defense, the two also discussed regional security challenges in the Middle East and areas of mutual defense cooperation.