US, Israel to study layered missile defenses

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WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) The United States and Israel agreed to work on a layered missile defense system to intercept ballistic missiles from Iran and Syria and smaller arms like those lobbed from Gaza and Lebanon, officials said.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a meeting at the Pentagon, agreed to set up a joint committee to study how Washington might help the Jewish state produce the system, according to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

An Israeli security source also said Barak and Gates talked about upgrading one of Israel's missile defense systems, Arrow II, designed to intercept missiles like those deployed by Iran and Syria.

''This proposal now has to go to the relevant work teams,'' that source said.

US officials, however, have expressed skepticism about the ability of the Israeli systems to defeat shorter range missiles.

The Pentagon already is a partner on the Arrow II program.

Israeli and US engineers also are working on a parallel project, David's Sling, to defend against medium-range rockets like those fired by Hezbollah guerrillas during the 2006 Lebanon war.

Israel has been developing a third system called Iron Dome, which is meant to shoot down short-range Palestinian rockets.

Barak's visit to Washington is his first as defense minister. He and Gates, who worked together previously when both served in top intelligence positions, met on Tuesday first with their staff present and then privately for 35 minutes.

Israel's recent air strike on Syria was not discussed during the session that included staff, one official said.

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

Barak, a former prime minister who has made no secret of his hopes to retake the top office, recently said Israel should condition any handover of the West Bank to the Palestinians on a reliable anti-missile system first being in place.

But with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert set to attend a US-sponsored peace summit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as early as next month, Barak was less categorical during his Washington talks.

''The defense minister laid out Israel's security concerns regarding the missile threat,'' said Barak spokesman Ronen Moshe. ''He did not come to set terms for a future territorial compromise.'' REUTERS CS BST0631

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