F-15 - Alon Ron
An Israel Air Force F-15. Photo by Alon Ron
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Tension is heating up between Israel and South Korea over the acquisition of the Israel Air Force's next training plane.

By early 2012, Israel is supposed to decide on the purchase of a new training plane to replace its aging American Skyhawks. It expects to pay about $1 billion for 25 to 30 planes. The two competitors are the Korean T-50 and the Italian M-346.

Recently, however, the Koreans learned that Israel has initialed a preliminary agreement with Italy. If Israel does purchase the Italian plane, it will be part of a wide-ranging trade deal between the two countries.

In correspondence with the Defense Ministry, the Koreans accused it of violating Israel's own tender laws by giving unjustified preference to the

Italians. Ministry officials rejected this claim, saying decisions on the matter will be strictly professional.

The air force has examined the two competing planes and submitted detailed reports about them. The decision now rests with the ministry, and the deciding factor will apparently be the deal's economic ramifications.

Haaretz has learned that about half a year ago, Defense Ministry Director General Udi Shani indeed signed a preliminary agreement with his Italian counterpart. The document, which was formulated according to demands submitted by Israel, expanded the deal beyond its original framework.

Italy promised that should Israel purchase the M-346, the two sides would sign additional security deals worth more than $1 billion. These additional deals would involve joint development of satellite projects and the sale of Israeli drones to Italy. But the preliminary agreement will become binding only if Israel decides to acquire the Italian plane.

This week, a Korean defense delegation is in Israel for talks, marking the second time a Korean delegation has visited Israel in recent weeks. The head of the Defense Ministry's acquisitions bureau, Shmuel Tzuker, previously visited Seoul, and South Korean and Israeli officials have also conducted correspondence.

The Koreans asked Israel for clarifications regarding the preliminary agreement signed with Italy. South Korean officials claim this agreement discriminates against their country by placing it in a disadvantageous position in negotiations for the sale of the training plane. They also suspect that Israel might be using the Italian offer as leverage to reduce their country's asking price for the training plane.

The Koreans have hinted that preference shown to the Italians would lead to the annulment of previously negotiated Israeli-Korean procurement deals.

Defense deals between Jerusalem and Seoul are worth $280 million a year.

Seoul also claims that Israel may have broken its own rules on tender procedures, and Korean officials indicated that they are considering legal action.

They recently sent a written complaint on the matter to Shani, and have also complained to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other top defense officials.

A senior Israeli defense official told Haaretz that "Israel's interests are not confined to the competition on the training plane, but rather to achieving a comprehensive deal that includes a range of fields."

The official added that a decision on the plane will be made in a few months.

"Nothing has been finalized," he said.