Less than three weeks into his tenure as chairman of the United States’ Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph “Fightin’ Joe” Dunford arrived in Israel late Saturday night,as the countries look to resume full-fledged defense ties previously dented by tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal.
This is Dunford’s first visit to Israel and his first overseas visit since taking over for Gen. Martin Dempsey on October 1. With increased diplomatic tensions between the US and Israel, Dunford’s visit is an explicit attempt to reaffirm the military relationship between the two countries.
He was greeted by a full honor guard in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters on Sunday morning.
Unlike his predecessor who visited Israel six times in his four years as chairman and had a years-long personal relationship with former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, Dunford has few direct ties to the Israeli army.
Dunford met with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who proclaimed the importance of the alliance to Israel’s security.
“The United States and Israel share mutual values and interests. We consider our relationship as strategic, and I would even say we consider this relationship a cornerstone of our national security,” Ya’alon said during the meeting.
“We appreciate the commitments and cooperation between the defense establishments, between the Defense Ministry and the Pentagon, between the US armed forces and the IDF and between our intelligence agencies,” he said.
Before meeting with Ya’alon, Dunford spoke with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who welcomed him to the country.
Though Dunford’s trip was not related to the recent violence in Israel, Ya’alon brought up the ongoing spate of stabbings, attributing it, in fact, to Iran.
“In recent weeks Israel is facing another wave of terror attacks, in this case Palestinian youngsters that have been incited and pushed into going to stab Israelis,” he said. “We have no border with Iran or territorial dispute, but they are aiming for us and they do not intend to change. The Iranians are trying to set fire to the West Bank by funding terror.”
Dunford, in response, admitted to having a more limited understanding of the Middle East than those who live here and told Ya’alon that he looked forward to learning more about the situation during his visit.
“This is my first overseas trip, and Israel is the first country I’ve come to visit,” Dunford told Ya’alon.
“A foundation of [the US-Israel] relationship is the military-to-military relationship that we have enjoyed,” he said. “And through all of the ups and downs, the military-to-military relationship has remained strong; it’s never wavered.”
Though both countries have repeatedly said that the defense relationship remained strong, though there have been tensions there as well as in the diplomatic arena. Most notable of these was a delayed arms deal between the US and Israel during last summer’s Gaza war.
The White House that summer was angered by the Israeli military’s attempts to purchase Hellfire missiles, tank shells and mortar rounds from the Pentagon without the Obama administration’s knowledge or consent, the Wall Street Journal reported last August.
However, especially in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year, the US has made a point to reinforce its military commitments to Israelis, who fear the potential wrath of an atomic Iran. During Dunford’s meeting with Ya’alon, he reiterated that promise.
“I certainly intend, in the time that I’m in this assignment, to ensure that this relationship continues to be strong,” Dunford said. “The challenges that we face, we face together.”
Israel and the United States are due to extend and increase the $3 billion a year in defense assistance arrangement set to expire in 2018, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended talks on such assistance during congressional review of the Iran nuclear deal, not wanting to appear to endorse the deal by accepting American assistance.
On Saturday, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said talks that were “on hold for some time resumed this past week in Washington.”
Dermer said the sides would work together on confronting Iran in the region in the wake of the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal reached between Iran and six major powers. He noted that Ya’alon would be in Washington later this month to discuss assistance and that it would be on the agenda when Netanyahu and President Barack Obama meet next month in Washington.
Dunford’s visit coincides with a two-week, multi-national air force exercise code-named “Blue Flag” at the Ovda airbase near Eilat in Israel’s Arava desert. The US Air Force, Israeli Air Force and other unnamed allied countries will take part in the exercise so they can “practice planning and execution of large air force operations,” the IDF said in a statement.
JTA contributed to this report.