JERUSALEM, SEPT. 2 -- Israel has asked the United States to supply it with the Patriot air defense missile system as well as new armaments for its jets as a result of the Persian Gulf crisis and U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Israeli officials here said today.
The officials said the Bush administration, which has signaled that it would consider additional military aid to Israel, has appeared responsive to the Israeli requests, which focus on toughening the country's air defenses. However, officials said no agreement has yet been reached, and the level of U.S. aid will not be settled until annual military cooperation talks between Israel and the United States later this year.
A senior Defense Ministry official denied reports that the United States already had agreed to supply Israel with nearly $1 billion in new arms, including F-15 and F-16 fighters and M-60 tanks. However, the official confirmed that Defense Ministry Director General David Irvi had presented new Israeli arms requests during his meetings last week with Pentagon officials in Washington.
The most important of the new Israeli requests, the official said, was for two batteries of Patriot missiles, which are designed primarily for use against aircraft but also can be directed against incoming missiles. Israel believes that if it were attacked by Iraq, the most likely strike would be by intermediate-range missiles or bombers. It currently deploys the U.S. Hawk antiaircraft missile, an older system that cannot be used as a defense against missile attacks.
Israel considered buying the Patriot system before the crisis but decided against it because of the high cost. The government is now proposing that the United States lease rather than sell Israel the Patriot batteries. The delivery of the system could take place immediately if the Pentagon decided to reroute two Patriot missile batteries now designated for shipment to Italy, the official said.
Irvi also told the Pentagon that Israel would like the United States to deliver its annual military aid in one lump payment rather than spreading it through the year, officials here said. At the current U.S. military aid level of $1.8 billion, that would save Israel $90 million a year in financing. A similar arrangement is already in place for the $1.2 billion Israel receives annually in U.S. economic aid.
Israel also is seeking additional U.S. supplies of Sidewinder and other airborne missiles, the official said, as well as other materiel he declined to specify. Most of the new requests, he said, were intended to improve the air defense system rather than ground forces.
The Israeli requests were triggered by the U.S. decision to carry out major new sales of advanced warplanes and other weapons to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other senior officials have expressed apprehension about the deliveries, but Israeli officials say they feel constrained from launching a direct campaign against them because of the situation in the gulf.
According to previous agreements with the United States, Israel already has been authorized to receive 50 more F-16 warplanes and five F-15s in the next few years. With about 200 of the sophisticated jets already in its arsenal, Israel's air force is already the strongest in the Middle East.
In addition, the Defense Ministry is now picking up an order of Apache ground-attack helicopters in the United States. Although it may request speeded delivery of some of the planes, or more helicopters, the government is not now asking Washington for additional F-15s or F-16s, officials said, adding that it was doubtful that the U.S. military would be willing to divert more of the jets from existing stocks in Europe.
Earlier this year, Israel turned down a U.S. offer to give it surplus M-60 tanks from Europe because the tanks are considered by the military here to be relatively outdated and inferior to the locally produced Merkava tank. The Pentagon subsequently promised the tanks to Egypt.
Officials here said the Defense Ministry has not asked the United States for relief on Israel's debt, despite indications by President Bush that he would ask Congress to forgive $7 billion in Egyptian military debts. However, one official said Finance Ministry officials were considering such a request.