TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Sunday declared a “enduring and flawless” US commitment to Israel, stepping up support during a tense time in Israeli politics and amid questions about the Biden administration’s efforts to revive nuclear negotiations with Israel’s nemesis, Iran.
Austin’s first talks in Israel since becoming Pentagon chief in January come as the United States seeks to capitalize on diplomatic progress made in the Middle East by the Trump administration, which negotiated an agreement normalize relations between Israel and several Arab states.
After meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Austin said he reaffirmed “our commitment to Israel is enduring and beyond reproach.” Austin made no mention of Iran. Gantz, in his own remarks while standing next to Austin, said The United States as a “full partner” against threats, “not least Iran”. No official responded to journalists’ questions.
“Tehran today presents a strategic threat to international security, the entire Middle East and the State of Israel,” Gantz said in his prepared statement. “We will work closely with our US allies to ensure that any new deal with Iran will secure vital world and US interests, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the State of Israel.” . “
Yoel Guzansky, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, said Austin’s visit was important in part because it was the first by a member of President Joe’s cabinet Biden.
“They want to show that they came here with clean hands and they want to listen,” Guzansky said. “They want to listen to Israel’s concerns and perhaps the concerns of other partners about the Iran negotiations.”
Austin is steeped in the intricacies of Middle Eastern defense and security issues. He served four years as the head of US Central Command, capping a 41-year career in the military that included commanding US forces in Iraq.
Flying overnight from Washington, Austin arrived in Tel Aviv the day after the country’s fourth inconclusive election in the past two years. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin last week gave besieged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the difficult task of trying to form a new government.
The main backdrop to Austin’s visit is the Israeli government’s concern over the Biden administration’s attempt to come to an arrangement to enter into the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel believes is fatally flawed. Netanyahu has for years described Iran as an existential threat to his nation due to Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon and its support for militant groups like Lebanese Hezbollah.
Netanyahu, the head of a state with its own secret nuclear weapons program, accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons to use with its ballistic missiles. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful. Netanyahu also maintained his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, which, if followed, strictly limits Tehran’s ability to enrich and store uranium, preventing it from manufacturing a weapon.
“History has taught us that deals like this, with extremist regimes like this, are worthless,” Netanyahu said last week.
Coincidentally or not, Austin arrived as Iran reported that its Natanz underground nuclear facility lost power on Sunday just hours after new advanced centrifuges that could enrich uranium faster were started. If Israel caused the blackout, it would further escalate tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadowy conflict across the Middle East.
Last week, an Iranian ship believed to have served as a base for the Revolutionary Guards off the coast of Yemen was hit by an explosion. Iran blamed Israel for the explosion.
In addition to repeated assurances from the Republican and Democratic administrations that the United States will strive to preserve Israel’s qualitative military advantage over its regional adversaries, Washington has for years invested heavily to help Israel develop missile defense technologies. .
Iron Dome is one of the most touted success stories in Israeli missile defense. It is a mobile anti-rocket system developed to intercept unguided rockets at close range. It has shot down more than 2,000 projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip since its deployment ten years ago. The US military recently purchased two Iron Dome batteries at the request of Congress to counter cruise missiles.
There are questions in Israel about the United States’ intentions to shift military priorities from the Middle East to focus more intensely on China and Russia as greater threats to American security.
Iran is the main source of concern for Israel and support groups in the United States. The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, or JINSA, argued in a report last week that such a shift in US priorities would “send the wrong” signal as the Biden administration begins collateral talks with Iran on relaunching the 2015 nuclear deal with international powers. . President Donald Trump stepped down in 2018.
“With reduced defensive capabilities and a perceived US withdrawal from the region, Tehran and its proxies will only be prompted to pursue even more dangerous actions to destabilize its neighbors,” the JINSA report said.
Michael Makovsky, JINSA chairman and former Pentagon official, said Austin’s visit was particularly timely, given the steps the Biden administration has taken to engage Iran in its nuclear program.
“Embracing and strengthening Israel sends a definite signal to Iran, which will only strengthen a credible military option against Iran and US influence in the talks,” Makovsky said in a statement.
Associated Press editors Josef Federman and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.