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U.S. Reportedly Pressing for Abandonment of Lavi Project

Israeli and American officials are embroiled in serious debate over the feasibility of Israel producing its second generation supersonic jet fighter plane, the Lavi, a prototype of which is scheduled for its first test flight next September.

A multi-party Knesset delegation, just returned from the U.S. reported they were subjected to intense pressure by the American officials they met to abandon the project on grounds that Israel has neither the money nor the technical ability to build the plane. The main American argument against the Lavi is its excessive cost per unit. But American cost calculations greatly exceed those of Israeli experts.

The U.S. has a direct stake in the plane because it is financing the project to a large degree and because the Lavi will be powered by American made Pratt and Whitney engines. Haaretz quoted a senior Defense Ministry official Tuesday as saying the Reagan Administration has taken no formal decision to discontinue the Lavi but would be very pleased if Israel decided to do so on its own.

ISRAEL DETERMINED TO BUILD LAVI

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has indicated that Israel is determined to build the plane but is willing to hear American alternative proposals, the newspaper Al Hamishmar reported Tuesday.

“They (the Americans) are not talking about discontinuing financial aid for the project (but) Israel is open to proposals and is willing to examine them, provided there is no delay in the plane’s development in the meantime,” Rabin was quoted as saying in advance of an interview to be published in Al Hamishmar later this week.

Rabin disclosed that the U.S. is now seeking to present Israel with alternatives to the Lavi. “When alternatives are in question, it is not the F-20 (an American-built jet) but a combination of an American platform and Israeli avionics, “Rabin was quoted as saying.

This would appear to mean an American designed aircraft with Israel developing and producing the electrical and electronic devices that would go into it.

“If the Americans have proposals, and they think that it will take half a year to formulate them in coordination with us and with due regard for our comments, I’m willing to hear these proposals. We have no proposals, we have a decision” to go ahead with the plane, Rabin said.

He stressed that the Lavi meets Israel’s needs “but this does not mean that other solutions involving other planes — which may be received from the U.S. — cannot be found.”

COST HIGHER THAN EXPECTED

According to sources quoted by Haaretz, it is clear that the cost of the Lavi will be higher than Israel originally reported to the Americans, but lower than the estimates by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dov Zakheim.

The sources told Haaretz that in some years there would be a need to invest almost $900 million in the plane in order to adhere to the production schedule. The Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday that Rabin has called an urgent meeting of the top echelons of the Defense Ministry and of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), manufacturer of the Lavi, to reassess the program in light of costs.

JOBS GUARANTEED BY U.S.

Israel Radio reported, meanwhile, that the Knesset delegation had received suggestions from American officials that Israel should use an advanced version of the American-built F-16 jet fighter incorporating in it the Israeli technology developed for the Lavi.

Also, according to the delegation, the Americans promised that Israeli engineers laid off if the Lavi is abandoned would find employment in the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the Reagan Administration’s so-called Star Wars program. Israel, along with Britain and West Germany, is one of the American allies promised contracts in connection with the SDI.

The Knesset delegation was more than a little indignant over the pressure applied by U.S. officials, Israel Radio reported. They were quoted as saying that as they made their rounds from one official to another, those they just saw briefed the ones they were about to see on the arguments the Israelis were presenting in favor of the Lavi. Thus briefed in advance, they were able to come up with counter-arguments.

David Magen, a Likud MK who was a member of the delegation, said the high cost estimates by the Americans were based on exaggerated notions of the salaries earned by Israeli engineers. He and other members said the Americans seemed determined to abort the Israeli Lavi production effort.

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