JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel will stagger the purchase of its second batch of 31 U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets over the next three years, an Israeli defense official said on Sunday after budget wrangling among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top cabinet colleagues.
Under a compromise plan approved by the ministerial committee, Israel will buy 14 of the aircraft now and another 17 in 2017, the official said without providing price details. The second stage of the purchase will be subject to another vote of approval nearer the time, the official added.
Israel bought 19 of the Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35s for $2.75 billion in 2010, with delivery scheduled between 2016 and 2018. The new purchase will bring the number of the planes in Israel's inventory to 50, or two squadrons. Under the 2010 deal, it has an option to order an additional squadron's worth.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon reached a preliminary agreement on the 31 F-35s during a visit to Washington last month, but met opposition from some Israeli ministers who voiced misgivings about the jet's high cost and untested capabilities.
The resulting hold-up, Yaalon told Israel's Army Radio earlier on Sunday, frayed ties with the United States, which have already been strained by disputes over how to tackle Iran's nuclear program and stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
A reduced Israeli purchase could have dented international confidence in the plane, which is being developed and built by Lockheed for the U.S. military and allies -- a $399 billion endeavor that is the world's most expensive weapons program.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Crispian Balmer