The F-35 deal changed gears yesterday. Over the past two years the negotiations had their ups and downs, but the Israel Air Force believed that its arguments would prevail. This belief was well-founded: It has never happened that the air force pointed to a model and was declined. It won't happen this time, either.
The political leaders accepted the IAF's main argument: retaining the technological advantage in the Middle East. There's no argument that the F-35, which is yet to receive a name in Hebrew, is an excellent fighter jet.
The deal also went forward thanks to its final price tag: $2.75 billion for 20 planes, which, minus costs for logistics, spare parts and simulators, means about $96 million per plane, about half the overblown estimate cited during the negotiations. America's flexibility has a reason: An Israeli decision to purchase the plane is a kind of stamp of approval. It means that other countries will soon follow.
The purchase of the F-35 means the IAF will also retain its dominance in setting Israel's defense strategy, as far as the wider range of threats is concerned, especially Iran. The F-35 does not provide an immediate answer to these threats: The first squadron will only be in operation in 2017, so if Israel decides in the next few years that the Iranian nuclear program needs to be addressed immediately, it will have to do so without the F-35. It will have to find a way to bypass Iran's air defense without the stealth jet.
The F-35 is not as relevant for nearer theaters of war, such as the northern border, where the current aircraft in Israel's arsenal appear to be sufficient. In the Palestinian arena, most of the burden will remain with the Shin Bet security service and the infantry.
The core question about the deal is its influence on the Israel Defense Forces' buildup in the coming years. The enormous costs will limit the purchase of land and naval systems, and will come at the expense of drones and missile defense systems. This is a legitimate choice, but the security cabinet's role will be to rubber-stamp it.
But the decision has already been made by the air force commander, the chief of staff and the defense minister. (That the latter two can decide on anything these days is perhaps encouraging). The other ministers will see an impressive presentation by the air force and approve the deal. Any civilian monitoring deeper than that is still out of the question.
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