Lavi Prototype Makes Official Debut

A prototype of the Lavi, Israel’s second generation jet fighter plane, was rolled out of a hangar at Ben Gurion Airport Monday night to make its official debut before 2,000 invited guests, including a delegation of U.S. Congressmen.

But the array of colored lights that bathed the pencil-thin, white-painted aircraft did not dispel the shadows that hang over its future. The Lavi project, which cost over $1.2 billion for research, development and construction, most of it supplied by the U.S., has become the object of bitter controversy both in Washington and Israel.

The Pentagon believes the cost of producing the plane is excessive — a view shared by some senior Israel Defense Force officers, and there has been less than subtle pressure by the Reagan Administration of late for Israel to abandon the project.

A GALA OCCASION

Nevertheless, the unveiling Monday night was a gala occasion. President Chaim Herzog cut a blue-and-white ribbon across the huge hangar doors and a tractor slowly pulled the plane on to the tarmac to be admired by the throng of dignitaries and other VIPs invited for the occasion.

But one of the Lavi’s most important boosters was absent. Premier Shimon Peres flew to Morocco Monday night for meetings with King Hassan. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin officiated instead. But there was no mention by the television and radio reporters covering the Lavi that the Prime Minister was not at hand. Live coverage was reduced to a few minutes because of the Cabinet crisis in the wake of Justice Minister Yitzhak Modai’s resignation earlier Monday.

Peres’ trip to Morocco was unannounced. Israelis who are used to surprises may have guessed that something was afoot when Peres attended what was billed as a dress rehearsal Monday morning. It was a private, unofficial roll-out of the plane for the benefit of Israel Aviation Industries (IAI) workers who designed and built it.

The Premier, in his remarks, acknowledged that the Lavi was a “big risk” in many ways. But, he noted, “those who want to take small risks will remain small. Those who want to succeed in a big way must be daring in a big way. That is the reason for the Lavi.”

Rabin, in his official remarks, said the Lavi has already passed a major hurdle. He stressed, however, that much more effort and sacrifice would be required before it went into production. He thanked the American Congressional delegation that attended the Lavi roll-out. The American contribution was crucial to the success of the project, Rabin declared.

One of the Congressmen, Rep. Jack Kemp (R. N. Y.), told the gathering that the aircraft could have both the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes for its insignia. But he stressed that the decision to go ahead with production is solely an Israeli one. The new fighter aircraft is the most expensive item on Israel’s tightened defense budget. Originally projected to cost $4 billion, some critics say it will cost as much as $6 billion. Pentagon experts have estimated the cost of each unit at $22 million.

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