US refuses to confirm offer of 20 F-35 fighter jets

P.J. Crowley says US is "committed to maintaining Israel's qualitative edge in region"; suggests 1-year deadline is flexible.

pj crowley 311 (photo credit: AP)
pj crowley 311
(photo credit: AP)
The United States on Monday refused to confirm a key component of the security guarantees it reportedly offered Israel in exchange for a 90-day freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank.
Supporters of the freeze have cited the US offer to give Israel 20 F-35 joint strike fighter jets worth $3 billion as a critical reason to support the deal; the initial details of which were hammered out last Thursday between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
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But when quizzed about the weapons offer, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, “We are committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge in the region – but beyond that, I’m not going to comment."
"I would just always caution that any time you have reports about specific things, some details may be right, some details may be wrong,” Crowley said.
Earlier in the day, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio that the US had made such an offer.
These jets, Barak said, have more long-term significance than the temporary friction, which exists between Netanyahu and the politicians in his party who oppose the deal.
In past talks with the US, Barak said, Israel had wanted to purchase 40 of them planes, but due to budget cuts could only afford 20.
The US is now offering to give us the additional 20 planes in exchange for the 90-day freeze, Barak said.
Should Israel and the Palestinians succeed in coming to a final status solution to the conflict, Barak said, the US has offered it a military deal that is six or seven times larger.
Since the details of the deal for the 90-day freeze were released late Saturday night, speculation has been high that the US wants to see the conflict over the borders of a future Palestinian state resolved during that time period.
But at the State Department on Monday, Crowley speculated that it may take anywhere from a number of months to more than a year to finalize an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
 “It does remain our view that an agreement can be reached within a reasonable period of time.  As you know, when the process started, we said this could be accomplished within 12 months.  Hard to say at this point, given the delay over the issue of settlements, where we stand on that clock,” Crowley said.
“If we get to August 2011, and we need a little more time to get this done; we’ll take that time,” said Crowley.
What is most important, he said, is the resumption of the fledgling negotiations, which broke down at the end of September, Crowley said.
“You can’t get to an agreement unless the parties are into negotiation. We want to get them to stay at the table, work through the issues, and get to an agreement.  That remains our goal,” Crowley said.
The talks, he continued, would include the core issues of borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem and water.
He believed, Crowley said, that the Palestinians would resume direct talks with Israel, even though their main conditions for such talks — halting constructions in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem — had not been meet. 
Crowley dismissed the idea that by offering security incentives in exchange for a freeze, the US had rewarded Israel for breaking its commitment under the Road Map to halting settlement activity.
Crowley said it was important to reassure Israel that the peace process would improve their security.
“We also are very conscious of the fact that there is at least one country in the region that is committed to wiping Israel off the face of the earth,” Crowley said.
He added that David Hale, the assistant to US Special envoy George Mitchell was in the region.
Israel has said that the final terms of the deal with the US for the 90-day freeze have yet to be finalized. When they are, Netanyahu will bring it to the 15-member Security Cabinet for a vote.