Just as in biblical or medieval times when kings sent each other horses as gifts or married off their daughters to unite dynasties, Israelis were informed last week that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received a farewell gift from U.S. President George W. Bush: The magnificent F-35 Lightning Strike Fighter. Indeed, it was claimed as a huge gain by Olmert's army - the team of advisers that manufactures half-truths and fabrications for him, and, with a little help from supportive journalists, captures headlines.
In fact, the so-called farewell gift is not Bush's to give, nor does Olmert plan on going anywhere. The order for 25 F-35 fighters, a deal that might cost $2 billion, was officially made last month when the Defense Ministry's mission in New York sent a request to the Pentagon, the plane's manufacturers (headed by Lockheed Martin) and the nine-member F-35 International Consortium that developed it.
Such a deal requires approval by Congress, and many issues still need to be ironed out, such as what type of design Israel wants (it may be interested in purchasing the short-takeoff design, which allows planes to operate on damaged runways). In addition, fitting the planes with unique and secret Israeli systems will undoubtedly raise costs. The F-35's famed stealth derives from its radar signature that makes detection by tracking systems more difficult. Such a capability is essential for fighter planes. The first six made for Israel will be assembled in Texas only in 2012, and training will last another year as per a U.S. pledge to foreign co-developers. Another 50 planes are expected to be ordered after the first deal.
In any case, defensive and economic considerations behind the sale of F-35s have no relation to the identity of presidents in Washington or prime ministers in Israel. Intervention on the highest level by the next U.S. administration may be required if Israel decides to spend billions more on purchasing an even more expensive and advanced plane, the F-22. U.S. law currently prohibits exports of the F-22 to give its air force an edge. Even close friends such as Japan, Israel and Australia are not exempt. If sales to these countries are permitted and Saudi Arabia is denied, then the latter may become disgruntled and threaten to cut oil production.
Olmert is not an Israeli asset in Washington; he's an albatross around its neck. The Bush administration awards him no preferences. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took care to repeatedly refer to three duos in her speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
It was Olmert who gave himself a gift by going to Washington and putting the brakes on the efforts to get rid of him. Barak displayed his largesse by letting Kadima oust Olmert. But he was reluctant to take the further step of resigning from the government along with his party.
Nobody in the Knesset is yearning for a general election, not even Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu, who is not certain what he will face. So it is reasonable that a government led by Livni will offer promising spoils to her failed competitors: Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz will be deputy prime minister; Avi Dichter, who is bored with the Public Security Ministry, will be made foreign minister, and Meir Sheetrit will return to the Justice Ministry for the lamentable price of parting with current minister Daniel Friedmann. Mofaz's threats at Iran this week were nothing new. He already outdid himself when, in December 2003, he addressed Iranian citizens while he was defense minister on Israel's Persian-language radio station and told them an Israeli operation against their country would distinguish between civilian and military targets.
Olmert's intention to stave off his ousting using Mofaz will not withstand two counterforces: demands on Barak to act and the work pace of the police and State Prosecution. Efforts by State Prosecutor Moshe Lador to prevent leaks by signing everyone on his team down to the last intern to confidentiality agreements will not spare Olmert. His situation can only worsen during the investigations carried out in New York, which may produce more evidence. In the coming weeks, the police will weigh the evidence and release their recommendation on whether to submit an indictment. If Olmert has not stepped down or been ousted by then, it will be his cue to say goodbye.
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