U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin paid a multi-day visit to Israel, arriving on April 11. He is then travelling to Europe. The U.S. Department of Defense sees this as a key trip strengthening ties with allies. The talks in Israel are two-fold, they are aimed at discussing the U.S. commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge and also discussion regional security, as well as Iran tensions.
Austin arrived in Israel as news broke of an incident at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility that caused an explosion. Iran has blamed Israel for what it calls “sabotage.” It was unclear if the attack was timed to coincide with the visit. Some have seen the attack as controversial because the U.S. administration was recently in Vienna on the sidelines of European talks with Iran about the 2015 Iran Deal. America left the 2015 Iran Deal in 2018 but the Biden administration has hinted at a possible return. Iran is driving a hard bargain and has enriched uranium beyond the limits set in the deal. Iran said it was installing advanced centrifuges at Natanz. A day after Iran’s comments the facility was damaged in what Iran says was an attack. Israel was also accused of an attack on an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, a ship that was widely believed to be an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “mother ship.”
Austin’s trip to Israel thus comes at an important time. It also comes amid decisions by Israel to buy more U.S. aircraft, including KC-46 tankers and more helicopters and F-35 stealth jet fighters. U.S. support for Israel’s military research and development has also been key to the development of Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow air defense systems. Now Israel and the United States are working on Arrow-4 and America has acquired two Iron Dome batteries. “The American commitment to Israel has never wavered,” the U.S. Department of Defense has said, a sentiment that Austin reiterated during his visit. He also stressed how important Washington sees regional security in the Middle East. Talks included discussions about Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.
The United States has also been clear on opposing Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon. This is a threat that Israel takes seriously and one that both Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have indicated Israel will continue to oppose. Some have interpreted Netanyahu’s tough comments on the Iran nuclear issue as being in opposition to the Biden administration’s attempt to discuss a new deal with Iran. Israel’s message has always been that it is willing to do whatever is necessary to defend itself and that this may mean being tough on Iran even if the U.S. is seeking a deal. How to thread that needle—of close relations with the United States and also maintaining pressure on Iran—is one of the key discussions between Jerusalem and Washington.
Israel has just had elections and Netanyahu has yet to form a new government. Gantz will likely depart his role if there is a new government. Gantz worked closely with his counterparts in the last year of the Trump administration and with Washington also during the first months of the Biden administration. Israeli officials indicated that Austin brought a large team with him including Mara Karlin, the acting assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and several dozen other staff members. These included Bryan P. Fenton, Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense and Kelly Magsamen, Austin’s Chief of Staff. On April 12, three U.S. helicopters could be seen in Jerusalem that were part of the delegation, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The last visit by a U.S. Secretary of Defense to Israel was in 2017. Israel and U.S. military ties however have grown since then, with numerous joint drills involving F-35s, dubbed Enduring Lightning, and numerous visits by Central Command figures. Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs, was also in Israel in December.
Austin met with his counterpart Gantz as well as other Israeli defense officials, such as Emir Eshel, the former Air Force chief who is now Director General at the Defense Ministry. He also met Israel Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, the head of the Israeli Air Force. According to local reports, Austin received a model of the David’s Sling air defense system and saw Israel’s F-35s and other defense systems. He reportedly discussed Israel’s defense achievements, its defense industries and security developments. Israeli defense industries, including Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries, increasingly partner with U.S. defense companies and also supply America with key technologies. The United States has also worked with Israel on issues such as counter-drone technology and counter-tunnel technology. There are proposals for more joint research and development cooperation.
Austin and his Israeli counterparts not only discussed the issue of Israel maintaining a military edge in the region, but also the stockpiles of U.S. precision guided munitions in Israel. This is important and has dovetailed with plans to move Israel to the Central Command area of operations, a decision taken in the last days of the Trump administration.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing) and Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming, Bombardier Books). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.