The United States has deployed a sophisticated long-range radar system in Israel capable of providing crucial early warnings in case of missile attacks.
There is a growing anxiety that Iran, which makes no secret of its long-range ballistic missiles or its uranium enrichment program, could launch an offensive against Israel.
According to the US newspaper Defense News, the radar system was flown to Israel in parts over the last week and will be installed at a military base in the Negev Desert in the south of the country.
An unnamed Israeli official told The New York Times that the radar would serve not only Israel, but the United States, and would be operated by 120 American staff.
High-powered Ephraim Kam, the deputy director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, called the radar system an “important addition” to Israel’s defences and said he believed the US was sending a message that “they are against any attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities at this time but cannot leave us without protection”.
Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported the deployment could be seen either as a means of preventing Israel from taking independent action against Iran, or to strengthen Israel’s defence against missiles if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities.
It is believed to be the first time American personnel have been stationed in Israel since the 1991 Gulf war, when Patriot anti-missile batteries were deployed against Iraqi Scud missiles.
Last week, The Guardian newspaper quoted European diplomatic sources as saying that US President George Bush had told Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in mid-May that he opposed an Israeli attack on Iran, and said his opinion was unlikely to change for the duration of his presidency.
In spite of the close strategic relationship between the two countries, Israel has traditionally preferred to staff its own defences and not depend on foreigners.
In a statement, the Israeli Army said that while it enjoys long-standing strategic co-operation with all branches of the American military, it would not confirm details of those bilateral activities.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said: “We are committed to working with the Israelis to enhance their defences but don’t talk about specific equipment of weapons systems we may provide.” But commenting on the radar deployment, another Pentagon official said: “We want to put Iran on notice that we’re bolstering our capabilities throughout the region, and especially in Israel.
“Just as important, we’re telling the Israelis, ‘Calm down. Behave. We’re doing all we can to stand by you and strengthen defences.’ ”
Meanwhile, in a parting interview with the leading Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth to mark the occasion of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year holiday, Mr Olmert said Israel must reach an agreement with Palestinians that included a withdrawal from almost all the Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem.
Mr Olmert said Israel must also leave the Golan Heights. He said that there was a brief opportunity in which it was possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and admitted he had erred in the years that he believed it was possible to control Jerusalem.
In Los Angeles thousands of people cheered on Sunday as the blue-and-white Star of David flag was raised for the first time in front of the Israeli consulate in the city.
Consul-general Jacob Dayan said the ceremony marked the first time a flag would be raised outside a consulate’s front doors and was only the second time an Israeli consulate in the United States had flown its flag openly.
“When I came to Los Angeles, it was 11 months ago. One of the first questions I asked was why we don’t have an Israeli flag outside the consulate,” Mr Dayan said in an interview last week.
“I was told, ‘You know, it’s security.’ ”
Mr Dayan said that, other than a flag at the consulate building in New York, offices did not fly the Israeli flag for fear it would make them a target.
“This is an answer I cannot accept,” Mr Dayan said. “I’ve been in much more dangerous places than Los Angeles, and I’ve seen the Israeli flag raised. It doesn’t help to hide.”