(photo credit: Courtesy)
US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman said he was open to removing the restriction on F-22 sales to boost Israeli deterrence and indicated that aid to the Palestinians could be affected by a Hamas-Fatah deal, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post Thursday.
The defense establishment has long eyed the stealth F-22 "Raptor" as a bulwark to Israel's air capabilities, but a US law banning its sale abroad has prevented Israel from acquiring the top-of-the-line plane.
Israeli officials reportedly brought up the possibility of a repeal of the ban during meetings at the White House during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's trip to Washington this week, though his aides declined to confirm the details of the conversations.
"I'm a strong supporter of Israel getting all the material and equipment they need," said Berman, a California Democrat who assumed the chairmanship after the death of Tom Lantos earlier this year. In terms of dropping the ban on F-22 sales, he said, "I certainly would look at it."
Berman, who visited Israel last month, noted that the House recently passed a bill to strengthen Israel's qualitative military edge in any US arms sales, explaining, "We're trying to lay a foundation for a tougher-minded evaluation of what assistance Israel needs."
That legislation needs to pass in the US Senate before it can be signed into law. And any effort by Berman to drop the ban on sales of the F-22 - described in the past as based on protecting the US from the transfer of technology to the wrong actors - would have to be matched in the Senate. Still, as a leading figure in the House on foreign issues, Berman would be a key player on moving such a priority forward.
Israel has been looking for further US support on a variety of defense measures - including developing advanced missile defense capabilities, acquiring smart bomb technology and expediting F-35 sales - with the Iranian nuclear threat looming.
Iran was the focus of Wednesday's talks, with Olmert saying that Bush had answered many of the questions he'd had about the US path, determination and time frame on Iran. He told reporters after meeting with Bush in the Oval Office that "every day we are making real strides towards dealing with this problem more effectively."
Iran was also on the agenda of meetings Olmert held with the US Senate leadership Thursday afternoon before his return to Israel later in the day. Also discussed were Syria and Lebanon, peace talks with the Palestinians, and how to deal with Hamas and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's reopening of national unity talks with Hamas could change that equation.
Berman suggested that US funding for the Palestinians could be jeopardized by these talks. American lawmakers would have doubts about giving money to a government that includes a group labeled a terrorist organization by the US, particularly for training Palestinian security forces.
"It certainly undercuts our ability to do a lot of things with the Palestinians," he said. "Giving money to an authority that has Hamas in it is very different from giving money to an administration headed by [PA Prime Minister] Salaam Fayad" of Fatah.
Palestinian officials said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had demanded clarifications about Abbas's decision to resume unconditional talks with Hamas in a conversation Thursday briefing him on Olmert's visit.
They said Abbas explained his motives to Rice and told her that the initiative was aimed at ending the crisis in the Palestinian arena.
Abbas and Rice also discussed the latest developments and the peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, PA officials said. They added that Abbas urged Rice to pressure Israel to halt settlement construction and to implement the road map peace plan.
Khaled Abu Toameh and Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.
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