Israel against sale of Russian cruise missiles to Syria, fears they could reach Hezbollah

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister said Sunday that he failed to block Russian plans to sell Syria anti-ship cruise missiles that his country fears could fall into the hands of Hezbollah guerrillas.

Syria is a key backer of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which has used Russian-made weapons against Israel in the past, including anti-tank missiles that were one of the militant group's most effective weapons during the monthlong war with Israel in 2006.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the deal to sell Syria P-800 missiles would be "very problematic" for the Jewish state.

"We have been aware of this deal for some time, and there were discussions with the Russians at every level," Netanyahu told a closed meeting of Cabinet ministers from his Likud Party. His comments were confirmed by a meeting participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

A string of Israeli leaders raised concerns about the deal, most recently Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a trip to Moscow earlier this month. Israeli defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive diplomatic matter, said Barak was told the sale would go through.

Russia's defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, announced in Washington last week that his government would go ahead with the deal, signed in 2007. Both Israel and the U.S. had voiced objections.

"The issue of selling the missiles to Syria was raised during the talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates," Serdyukov told the state news agency RIA Novosti. "Undoubtedly, it would be fulfilled by the Russian side." It was not immediately clear when the weapons would be transferred.

The agency said the P-800s have a range of 200 miles (300 kilometers), carry a 440-pound (200-kilogram) warhead and cruise just yards above the surface, making them difficult to detect and intercept.

Israeli officials say they are deeply concerned about the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Syria, which supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israel has said Hezbollah used Russian-made weapons obtained from Syria during the 2006 war, in which some 120 Israeli soldiers were killed.

After the fighting, which ended in a stalemate, an Israeli delegation went to Moscow to complain about Hezbollah's use of Russian-made anti-tank missiles. The Israelis brought what they said was conclusive evidence, such as serial numbers, to prove the weapons were Russian.

At the time, Russia said that any of its weapons obtained by Hezbollah came from third countries, not Russia or Syria.

Last week, Israel announced an arms deal of its own, giving final approval to the planned purchase of advanced F-35 stealth warplanes from the U.S.

Netanyahu on Sunday called that deal "a significant step in strengthening the state of Israel's military capabilities." The first aircraft are expected to be delivered in 2015.

"This is one of our answers to the changing threats around us, to maintain our attack capabilities, along with other actions to improve both our defensive and offensive abilities in the decades to come," Netanyahu told his Cabinet. "I think that this step, acquiring the most advanced plane in the world, more advanced than any plane in the area, is an important and significant step for the security of Israel."