In an open letter to the Israeli people sent January 19, departing President Bill Clinton wrote he would support the future sale of the F-22 Raptor combat aircraft to Israel, pledging that he would recommend that Israel be "among the first, if not the first, foreign customer." Clinton's pledge, however, is not binding on President George W. Bush and is largely perceived as a symbolic gesture underscoring the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel's "qualitative" military edge in the Middle East.
Still in the development stage, the F-22 is slated to replace the F-15 as the next U.S. air superiority fighter, but the fighter's high cost, estimated at least $180 million per plane, has raised doubts whether the United States will even procure the stealth fighter. Air Force plans call for purchasing a total of 341 Raptors, but the new Bush administration has effectively put all major acquisition programs on hold until the new secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, completes a "top to bottom" review of the U.S. military, which is expected to take months. Nevertheless, an Israeli official welcomed the Clinton letter as a "positive statement."
The outgoing Clinton administration also signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel on January 19 spelling out the unofficial U.S. policy since 1998 of phasing out U.S. economic assistance to Israel by $120 million per year until it is eliminated in 2008. In exchange, the United States has been increasing its military aid to Israel by $60 million per year until it reaches $2.4 billion annually by 2008. Previously, U.S. annual aid to Israel consisted of $1.2 billion in economic assistance and $1.8 billion in military assistance. Like the F-22 pledge, the memorandum is not binding on Bush.In January 2000, Israel signed a $2.5 billion contract for 50 F-16C/D fighters, with deliveries to begin in 2003. The contract also included an option to buy another 60 fighters for an additional $2 billion, which Israel is currently evaluating. At this time, Israel's air force flies approximately 250 F-16 and 100 F-15 combat aircraft received from the United States.