Defense Secretary Ashton Carter held a closed-door session at the Pentagon Monday with new hard-line Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on a range of issues including Israel’s acquisition of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Carter and Lieberman discussed regional security challenges in the Middle East and areas of mutual defense cooperation” ahead of Lieberman’s visit to the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Tex., “for the roll-out ceremony of the first Israeli F-35 aircraft coming off the production line. Israel will be the first foreign partner to receive the F-35, which will play a key role in maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge in the Middle East,” the Defense Department said in a statement.
Lieberman’s visit to the Pentagon, his first foreign trip since being sworn in on May 30, came as the U.S. and Israel were in the process of negotiating a new 10-year defense aid pact to replace the current one, which expires in 2018 and grants the Jewish state more than $3 billion per year.
Lieberman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have said that they hope to conclude the aid agreement before President Obama leaves office.
Israel has so far ordered a total of 33 F-35s and would be the only country in the Mideast to have the advanced fighter which has gone through years of delays and cost overruns as the most expensive weapons system ever developed by the U.S.
In a cabinet shuffle to strengthen his coalition, Netanyahu pushed out Moshe “Boogie” Yaalon, a former Army general, to make way for Lieberman as Defense Minister.
Yaalon left with harsh words for Netanyahu and said he was considering running against him in the next elections.
"The leadership of Israel 2016 is busy with inflaming passions and causing fear between Jews and Arabs, between Right and Left and between different ethnic groups in order to survive in power and earn another month or year,” Yaalon said.
Lieberman, a former bar bouncer who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet state of Moldova, has been considered a polarizing figure in Israeli politics for his hard-lined stance against Palestinians and a two-state solution favored by the U.S.
In a rare statement on internal Israeli politics, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said last month that the addition of Lieberman to the Cabinet “raises legitimate questions" on the direction of the Israeli government and "what kind of policies it will adopt. But ultimately, we're going to judge this government based on its actions.”