image Photo: Ariel Hermoni (IMoD)

Israeli leaders hold talks with US Defense Chief

The arrival of United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Israel was delayed due to ongoing public protests against a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government to overhaul the country’s court system.

By Erin Viner

The Four Star American General came to the Jewish State as part of a regional tour that included stops in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

Hasty rearrangements to avoid demonstrators and blocked roads surrounding the Ben Gurion International Airport led first to the postponement of Austin’s landing, and then a decision to shorten his visit altogether. Israeli leaders hosted the US official at the nearby VIP Center of the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI).

“Sir, thanks for being a great host and thanks for the warm welcome, it is great to be back,” Secretary Austin  said to Prime Minister Netanyahu. “You are right. We do have a lot to talk about today – and you’ve heard us say over and over again – that we are absolutely committed to security of Israel.”

Following the meeting, which Netanyahu described as “important and comprehensive,” Netanyahu expressed appreciation for Austin’s “remarks on behalf of President (Joe) Biden, as well as the US commitment to Israel’s security, also on behalf of the President.”

Netanyahu revealed that the conversation focused primarily on joint Israeli-US efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“If anyone in Tehran thinks that Iran can make unhindered progress toward nuclear weapons, they are mistaken,” underscored the Israeli Premier. He went to note that he has discerned “a change in the approach to Iran in recent months, both in the US and in the countries of Western Europe, and in the West in general.”

Stressing the “need and an obligation to try and strengthen a more assertive approach with Iran,” Netanyahu, who departed for Rome immediately after meeting with the US Defense Secretary. He emphasized that the topic would be “at the center” of his talks with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni just as it had been at last month’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and voiced his intention to hold similar conversations “with principal European leaders in the near future.”

The issue of Iran was also the focus of talks Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held with his US counterpart.

“Today we find ourselves, at a critical point in time. In the coming period, we will need to make pressing and important decisions.  Iran aims to gain nuclear weapons, and threatens not only Israel, but the entire world,” General Gallant told the US Defense Secretary.

“The parties discussed a variety of security topics, placing great emphasis on the Iranian threat and the measures required to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.,” said a statement TV7 obtained from the Israeli Ministry of Defense (IMoD).

It is our duty to take all the measures necessary, to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. In this matter, our capabilities and cooperation have great meaning and power,” said Gallant, deliberately repeating: “The Iranian nuclear threat requires us to be prepared for every course of action.”

Minister Gallant also raised concerns regarding Iranian entrenchment in Syria, Lebanon and the wider region, Iran’s regional aggression and support for terror organizations. “The Ayatollah regime will only increase its activities: supporting Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism, and exporting advanced weapons around the world, including UAVs and accurate missiles. We will see terrorism against innocents across the region, including the people of Iran, who suffer under a violent and oppressive regime,” stressed Israel’s top defense official.

The IMoD  said the two leaders also discussed “the importance of restoring stability and ensuring security in Judea and Samaria, while taking a decisive stand against terrorism in the area.”

Ahead of Austen’s visit, a senior US official speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Secretary Austin would convey White House concerns that escalating tensions in the West Bank could distract Jerusalem and Washington’s attention away from Tehran’s activities. Austin “will also be quite frank with Israeli leaders about his concerns regarding the cycle of violence in the West Bank and consult on what steps Israeli leaders can take to meaningfully restore calm before the upcoming (Jewish and Muslim) holidays,” said the official.

“As for the Palestinian arena, the State of Israel seeks stability and security. We are interested in the economic prosperity and well-being of the Palestinian people, in Judea and Samaria, and in Gaza,” said Gallant in statements released to the public, while he stressed, “This should never come at the expense of the life of a single citizen of Israel. And in the face of terrorism, we will be determined, precise and powerful.”

Defense Secretary Austin used the opportunity at a later press conference to thank Israel for supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia, while calling for other allies to follow suit.

Israel has been providing helpful humanitarian support for Ukraine, and I’m also grateful for Israel’s participation in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group that I convene,” Austin said, adding, “”Yet we’re also calling on all of our allies and partners to step up now at this hinge moment in history. Nations of goodwill, and especially our fellow democracy, must all urgently do their part to help Ukraine fight for its freedom.”

While Israel has condemned the Russian invasion and provided Ukraine with humanitarian relief and protective gear, it has stopped short of widening the assistance to include defense technologies such as missile interceptors.

Israel has been measured in its rhetoric on Russia, mindful of the need to coordinate Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria with Moscow’s garrison in the Arab state.

Israel has been wary of straining relations with the Kremlin, which is a powerbroker in neighboring Syria where Israel coordinates strikes against Iranian deployments. Jerusalem and Moscow maintain a defense coordination mechanism in the Arab Republic to prevent clashes between their militaries. Russian forces have been deployed to fight in the Civil War on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, while Israel frequently launches operations against deployments by Iran and its regional proxies such as the Hezbollah terror group in Syria.

Soon after Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine late February, the Kremlin sought to reassure Israel that the bilateral security coordination would remain unaffected.

Jerusalem is also mindful of the welfare of the large Jewish community residing in Russia.

Regarding Israeli-US bilateral relations, Minister Gallant “emphasized the unique bond between the United States and Israel, and the depth of defense cooperation between the respective defense establishments. He expressed his personal commitment to further strengthening and expanding defense ties, and thanked Secretary Austin for his unshakeable commitment to the security of the State of Israel,” said the IMoD.