JERUSALEM (Feb. 19)
The threat of an attack from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is gone, but Israel remains worried about the possibility of nuclear weapons in Iran.
It was with that threat in mind that Israel made its largest military purchase ever, spending $4.5 billion for 102 F-16I fighter jets, which put Iran within striking range if the necessity should ever arise.
The first two jets of that aircraft order arrived in Israel this week with a ceremonial landing at Ramon air base in southern Israel. The remainder of the order will arrive little by little until 2010.
Some 1,000 people — soldiers and their families, as well as dignitaries including Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon — watched as the U.S.-made jets broke though cloud cover and landed at the base.
The two-seater planes flew in desert camouflage, with one American and one Israeli pilot on board. As the planes flew in, one of the American pilots’ voices could be heard, radioing in, “Hello Israel.”
An earlier generation of U.S.-purchased planes — F-16s — were used in 1981 in a surprise, pre-emptive strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. That strike was widely condemned by leading members of the international community when it took place, but praised years later by many of its original detractors who said it prevented a viciously anti-Western Arab regime from getting its hands on the first “Islamic” atomic bomb.
Mofaz said he hopes the new jets will serve as a deterrent against the Islamic Republic of Iran and other would be Israel-destroyers in the Arab world.
Arab regimes routinely criticize the United States for selling arms to the Jewish state.
“Our quest for peace in the Middle East requires demonstrative military prowess,” Mofaz said, adding, “We hope the capability of this plane will mean it will never have to be put to use against our enemies.”
The F-16I features enlarged fuel tanks, which give it an estimated range of 1,000 miles, as well as advanced electronic warfare systems.
Iran says its nuclear reactors are for peaceful purposes only, but Israeli and U.S. officials say the Islamic republic is trying to develop a nuclear weapons program.
Israeli analysts say the threat against Israel comes from two different sources: low-intensity terrorism from the Palestinians and unconventional threats from countries such as Iran.
Some in the defense establishment believe Israel is spending too much time on the latter threat.
“The regional threat has changed. We should be investing in counterterrorist intelligence and special forces, rather than a pricey package like this,” an Israeli defense official who asked to remain anonymous said.