Barak heads to US to promote Israel rocket defence

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JERUSALEM, Oct 14 (Reuters) Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak heads to the United States this week to promote joint anti-missile projects that Israel considers a prerequisite for any future handover of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

Barak's talks in Washington will help set the stage for next month's conference on Palestinian statehood, called by President George W Bush's administration in the hope of containing Iranian-backed Hamas Islamists after their Gaza Strip takeover in June.

The Pentagon is partner in Israel's Arrow II, a system designed to intercept ballistic missiles of the kind deployed by Iran and Syria. Israeli and American engineers are working on a parallel project, David's Sling, to tackle guerrilla rockets.

Israel has failed to stem cross-border rocket salvoes from Gaza, which it quit in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. It fears a similar threat from the West Bank if troops depart.

Barak told Israeli media in August any significant West Bank pullouts would require anti-rocket systems first be in place.

Spokesman Ronen Moshe said Barak's US talks would cover ''a range of strategic bilateral issues'' including missile defence.

While David's Sling would fend off medium-range rockets like those fired by Hezbollah guerrillas during the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel is separately developing Iron Dome, a system meant to shoot down the short-range Palestinian rockets.

Israel also has a number of US-supplied Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile batteries left over from the 2003 Iraq war.

David's Sling and Iron Dome are at least two years from completion, Israeli security sources say. Once integrated, they ''will provide protection from about 90 per cent of all attempts to fire rockets at us,'' Barak told Israeli lawmakers last week.

He said more work was needed on ''long-range interception'', an apparent reference to Arrow, which Israel considers its main bulwark against Iranian long-range Shehab missiles should there be a US or Israeli strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Arrow has passed several live tests with flying colours and is operational in Israel. Uzi Rubin, one of the system's inventors, said Barak and the Bush administration may discuss authorising a major upgrade.

''There is talk of producing an Arrow III, which would have an expanded interception altitude. They want even greater deterrence,'' Rubin told Reuters.

Barak is scheduled on Tuesday to meet US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has championed plans for an Eastern European missile shield amid Russian objections.

While in Washington, Barak may also face questions over Israel's mysterious air strike on Syria last month. The New York Times reported that the Sept 6 sortie targeted a planned nuclear reactor and that some US officials objected to the timing as the project was potentially years away from completion.

Israel, which is believed to have the West Asia's only atomic arsenal, has not given details on the raid. Washington has also been silent. Syria denied pursuing nuclear weaponry.

Reuters PD RN1836

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