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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States has agreed in principle to provide Israel with better "smart bombs" than those it plans to sell Saudi Arabia under a regional defense package, senior Israeli security sources said on Sunday.
Keen to bolster Middle East allies against an ascendant Iran, the Bush administration last year proposed supplying Gulf Arab states with some $20 billion in new weapons, including Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bomb kits for the Saudis.
The plan has angered Israel's backers in Washington, who say the JDAMs, which give satellite guidance for bombs, may one day be used against the Jewish state or at least blunt its power to deter potential foes. Israel has had JDAMs since 1990 and has used them extensively in a 2006 offensive in Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government dropped its objections to the proposed Saudi deal in July after securing U.S. military aid grants worth $30 billion over the next decade.
Two Israeli security sources said the United States further mollified the Olmert government with an "understanding in principle" that future JDAM sales to Israel would include advanced technologies not on offer to Saudi Arabia.
"We are checking which of the top-of-the-line JDAMs will become available to us. The agreement is that Israel's qualitative edge will be preserved," one source said.
The spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv could not immediately be reached for comment.
Shlomo Dror, spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry, declined to give details on any specific defense deals, saying only: "The Americans are certainly taking steps to help us preserve our technological superiority, as is Israel."
Robert Hewson, editor of Jane's Air-launched Weapons, suggested Israel might be interested in American innovations aimed at making JDAMs immune to jamming attempts.
"The great unspoken fear is that you can come up against an enemy who knows what he is doing when it comes to countermeasures," Hewson said. He added that Israel is currently the only country in the Middle East believed to have JDAMs.
U.S. President George W. Bush was due to visit Saudi Arabia on Monday as part of a Middle East tour he hopes will shore up Washington's efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear projects.
In Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, Bush worked to foster bilateral peacemaking but also discussed Iran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons but whose president has stirred war fears by urging that Israel be "wiped off the map".
Israel used JDAMs extensively in its 2006 offensive against Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, requiring urgent U.S. resupplies. Surprise setbacks in the 34-day war prompted Israel's top brass to order an overhaul of the armed forces.
Believed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, Israel has vowed to deny Iran nuclear weapons and hinted at the possibility of a strike like its air force's 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor.
According to the Internet site of JDAM manufacturer Boeing Co, recent enhancements to the kits include laser navigators and glide wings that allow jets to drop the munitions from a distance of more than 40 miles from the target.
Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel but signaled a softening of this stance by attending a U.S.-hosted conference on Palestinian statehood in November.
Editing by Sami Aboudi