U.S. approves $330 million in arms deals for Israel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Tuesday said it had approved up to $330 million in three separate arms deals for Israel, and sources tracking a much bigger deal for 25 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets said that agreement could be approved later this month.

Top Israeli and U.S. government officials also met in Washington on Tuesday for the most senior bilateral high technology dialogue ever between the two allies.

Co-chaired by U.S. Commerce Undersecretary Mario Mancuso and two senior Israeli officials, the three-day high tech forum is aimed at expanding secure high technology trade and investment across a wide-range of promising technology areas.

While U.S. and Israeli officials met in nearby Virginia, the Pentagon told Congress it had approved three arms deals for bombs, Patriot missile upgrades and anti-armor weapons. Lawmakers have 30 days to block the sales, but such action is rare.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees major arms sales, said it approved the sale of three kits to upgrade Israel’s Patriot missile defense system, a deal valued at up to $164 million if all options are exercised.

The kits, made by Raytheon Co, would help Israel develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability, the agency said.

It also approved the sale of 28,000 M72A7 66mm light anti-armor weapons, 60,000 training rockets, and other equipment, a deal valued at up to $89 million. The main contractor would be Talley Defense, based in Mesa Arizona.

Finally, the government approved the sale of 1,000 GBU-9 small diameter bombs made by Boeing Co, in a deal valued at up to $77 million if all options are exercised.

A separate agreement that would allow Lockheed to sell Israel 25 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, plus an option for at least 50 more, was also nearing approval, according to two sources tracking the deal closely and a top defense analyst.

They said the DSCA hoped to notify Congress about the deal before lawmakers head back to their districts to campaign for the November 4 election, possibly by the end of September.

The Pentagon is solidly backing Israel’s request for the fighter jets, which are being designed by the United States and eight other countries to replace the F-16 fighter jet.

But the two sides are still working out the details of the exact configuration of the F-35 that Israel will receive, said Loren Thompson, analyst with the Lexington Institute.

“There is strong administration support for selling F-35s to Israel, however the government will need to determine which items are included in the Israeli version since the technology is very sensitive,” said Thompson.

Maj. Gen. Charles Davis, the Pentagon’s program chief for the F-35, last month told Reuters that Israel was getting the F-35 into its fleet “as quickly as we possibly can.”

Pinchas Buchris, director general of Israel’s defense ministry and one of the co-chairmen of the high-tech forum, told Reuters he would have a high-level meeting about the issue while in Washington this week.

But he said the two countries were still continuing “tough” discussions about various issues related to the F-35 sale, although he declined to give any details.

“We still have a long way to go,” Buchris said.

Mancuso said the forum, also attended by U.S. and Israel industry executives, marked a big step forward after tensions between Israel and the United States in the past over weapons sales.

He said Israel had made positive changes in recent years, including establishment of the Defense Export Controls Office, and enactment of a new law.

He said the United States would continue to maintain tough export controls where needed, but it also hoped to expand collaboration with Israel in many promising high tech areas.

“Our technical collaboration will continue to grow as our broader comfort on these issues grows,” Mancuso said.

Buchris said Israel had made many improvements in a drive to keep tighter control of defense exports, and said that those efforts had been closely coordinated with the United States.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Carol Bishopric