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Friday, April 27, 2007

Israel may get F-22s if nation at risk

The United States would be inclined to allow the sale of advanced stealth F-22 fighter jets to the Israeli Air Force if the State of Israel's security was in jeopardy, former US Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen told The Jerusalem Post Thursday night.

On a 24-hour visit to Israel, Cohen, who served as defense chief under President Bill Clinton from 1996 until 2000, met on Thursday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for talks on the looming Iranian nuclear threat and other regional issues.

Cohen currently heads the Cohen Group, which provides business consulting services and advice on tactical and strategic opportunities around the globe.

The Post reported last week that the Air Force has expressed newfound interest in receiving the F-22 - a US-developed fifth generation stealth fighter jet - and has requested that the Defense Ministry present the request on its behalf to the Pentagon. Defense officials have asked to receive the jet so Israel can retain its military edge in the region in face of American plans to sell smart bombs to Saudi Arabia.

"There is no stronger relationship than with Israel," Cohen said. "There could be circumstances that that level of technology would be released to Israelis."

While Congress and the Pentagon would be hesitant to release classified technology like the F-22 to Israel, "if it came to a question of Israeli security, I am confident they will come to help."

The F-22 has been forbidden for export by the Pentagon.

Cohen arrived in Israel Wednesday night after visiting a number of Gulf states, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as Jordan. Cohen said that during his talks with leaders in those counties he heard "sentiments" acknowledging that Iran was the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East and no longer Israel. Cohen visited Israel as secretary of defense in 2000.

"They understand that Iran is a threat to them all," he said. "There is a convergence of interest evolving and you can find that Israel is not being seen as the adversary."

With Iran funding Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria, there was a need to focus on the "center" when looking to find the catalyst for instability in the Middle East, Cohen said.

"The prospect of Iran getting nuclear weapons changes the dynamics in the region with great impact for rest of world," he said. "We try to seek ways that the Gulf states can cooperate with the US. They are not yet ready to announce diplomatic relations with Israel but the sentiment is shifting and they understand that Iran is the major threat to them and not Israel."

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