Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has thrown a spoke in the wheel of Israel's planned purchase of 20 American F-35 Stealth aircraft at a cost of $2.7 billion: At Sunday's cabinet meeting, he got Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to promise that acquisition of the planes, which are designed to greatly reduce the chance of being spotted by radar or other detection systems, will be considered by a forum of senior ministers - either the security cabinet, the "septet" of top ministers or some other group.
Netanyahu was responding to Steinitz's contention at the meeting that such an important decision, which has enormous defense and economic implications, should not be left to the defense minister, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and the commander of air force.
Steinitz argued that such a purchase should be considered and approved by a senior group of ministers, including some with responsibility for economic issues. He said the purchase of the F-35s from American firm Lockheed Martin could have far-reaching implications for Israel's own defense industries.
Defense officials had argued that the purchase would be funded entirely by the military aid the United States gives Israel. But Steinitz countered that the purchase would also require a significant shekel outlay for pilot training, hangar construction and maintenance equipment, among other items.
The finance minister said consideration also had to be given to Washington's opposition to the installation of Israeli systems and missiles on the plane. This American dictate would bar the plane from being outfitted with radar built by Israel Aerospace Industries' Elta division or missiles produced by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.
But the U.S. has agreed to reciprocal purchases of equipment from Israel's defense industries totaling between $4 billion and $9 billion.
Finance Ministry officials said the ban on installing Israeli systems on the Stealth would be a major blow to Israel's defense industry. In particular, the purchase of American missiles would hurt development of new Israeli missile systems.
Steinitz acknowledged, however, that the reciprocal sales agreement with the U.S. could remedy this situation.
But the ban also poses another problem: Other countries that purchase the aircraft will also be barred from buying such Israeli military systems. This is in contrast to the situation with previous American fighters, on which Israeli components have been installed. Between 10% and 15% of every new F-16 made in America, for instance, consists of Israeli systems.