US to beef up Israeli anti-rocket system
WASHINGTON, USA (AFP) — The United States plans to bolster an Israeli anti-rocket system with $70 million in assistance this year and more funding is likely in the future, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday.
The "Iron Dome" air defence network has been credited with thwarting Palestinian militant rocket and mortar attacks out of Gaza.
"My goal is to ensure Israel has the funding it needs each year to produce these batteries that can protect its citizens," the Pentagon chief said in a statement after meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.
"That is why going forward over the next three years, we intend to request additional funding for Iron Dome, based on an annual assessment of Israeli security requirements against an evolving threat," the statement also quoted Panetta as saying.
The announcement fell short of predictions published in Israel's Haaretz daily that Washington was ready to commit to $680 million to pay for more anti-rocket batteries.
Instead, the US administration chose to provide $70 million for the current year and review the issue in future years, allowing some potential leverage over Israel.
US-Israeli relations have been strained over how to counter Iran's nuclear programme, with Washington arguing that sanctions need to be given a chance to work while Israeli leaders have suggested time is running out and that unilateral military action may soon be necessary.
Panetta called the aid for the air defence system "part of our rock solid commitment to Israel's security," which comes "on top of approximately $3 billion in annual security assistance."
The Pentagon has already delivered $205 million in assistance for the Iron Dome system.
Panetta added that "we will stay in close consultation in the years ahead to ensure we are making necessary investments in this important system."
Barak's visit to Washington was the third in as many months and came as the US and other major powers prepared for a fresh round talks this month with Iran on its nuclear programme.
Israel and most of the West believe Iran's nuclear energy programme masks a drive to develop atomic weapons. Tehran denies such intentions.