In a break from historic Israeli opposition to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday his country understands Washington's plan to supply state-of-the-art weapons to Riyadh as a counterweight to Iranian influence.
The United States, knowing that Israel is sensitive about such arms sales, also is offering a sharp increase in defense aid to Israel and has assured the Jewish state it will retain a fighting edge over other countries in the region, he added.
"We understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states and there is a need for a united front between the U.S. and us regarding Iran," Olmert told a weekly Cabinet meeting.
The rare agreement reflects shared U.S. and Israeli concern over the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The proposed arms deal alarms the Israeli right. One leading hard-liner warned that Saudi Arabia, although not belligerent now, could be taken over by extremists.
The proposed package comes with a serious sweetener for Israel: a 25 percent rise in U.S. military aid, from an annual $2.4 billion at present to $3 billion a year and guaranteed for 10 years.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins a Mideast tour today, the AP reports.
US President George W. Bush, whom Olmert last met in Washington on June 19, gave him assurances 'to keep the qualitative edge between us (Israel) and the other states (in the region),' the Israeli premier said.
'Other than the increase in aid, we received an explicit and detailed commitment to guarantee Israel's qualitative advantage over other Arab states.
'We understand the United States' desire to help moderate states which stand at a united front with the United States and Israel in the struggle against Iran,' he added.
A senior US defence official said on Saturday that Washington is readying a major arms package for Saudi Arabia with an eye to countering the changing threat from Tehran, Israel's arch foe.
The Pentagon provided no details on the arms package, which will reportedly total 20 billion dollars over the next decade.
But it will include new weapons for the United Arab Emirates, and military and economic support to Egypt, officials said.
The deal is intended to strengthen US allies in the Middle East and counter the perceived threat from Iran, whose nuclear activities have provoked major concern in Israel and the US.
Israel has reacted cautiously to the reported Saudi package, Thomson Financial reports.
'We have no doubt that the United States would not do anything that could endanger the security of Israel,' Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin told Agence France-Presse Sunday.
Washington is striving to assure Gulf allies, worried by the growing strength of Iran and war in Iraq, that the United States is committed to the region and will stand by them, with arms sales part of that process, U.S. officials say.
The package for Saudi Arabia would upgrade its missile defences and air force and increase its naval capabilities, Reuters reports.
The United States also is preparing a package of military assistance worth some $13 billion in the next decade for Egypt, another U.S. ally in the Middle East, a senior State Department official said.
Prepared by Alexander Timoshik