Amid public tensions between Israel and the US over Iran in which his boss has been a central player, the second-highest ranking officer in the US armed forces is visiting Israel this week.
Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met on Thursday afternoon with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv. Winnefeld arrived in Israel earlier in the week for talks focused on Iran and other defense issues, but his visit was initially kept secret.
Last Thursday, General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed a possible Israeli strike against Iran last week and said rather scathingly that Israel had the power to “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear program.” He also warned about the counter-productive consequences of such a strike, and took the highly unusual step of adding, “I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it.”
Winnefeld has been meeting Israeli officials and touring key sites. He visited an Iron Dome battery near Ashkelon Wednesday and, as a guest of IDF Deputy Chief of the General Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, took part in security meetings that addressed “the cooperation between the two armies,” Army Radio said Thursday.
The visit comes amid significant tension between American army brass and Israeli leadership. Dempsey’s remarks last week drew plenty of anonymous ire in Israel. Senior government sources said bitterly that it showed “vehement American opposition” to an Israeli strike before the November 6 elections, and protested the use of the term “complicit” — with its criminal connotations.
Time magazine also reported last week that the largest joint American-Israeli military exercise, Austere Challenge 12, scheduled to be held in late October and to include missile defense warships and thousands of troops, was significantly reduced in scale. The reduction, the magazine reported, “may make it more difficult for the Israeli government to launch a pre-emptive strike on Tehran’s nuclear program.”
Winnefeld’s visit is the latest in an unprecedentedly intensive series of trips to and from Israel by defense and security chiefs, focused on the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. In the next such trip,. Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, Commander, 3rd Air Force, Ramstein Air Base, Germany — the commander of the upcoming Austere Challenge — exercise, is slated to arrive next week.
Israel has been widely reported to be pushing for a resort to military force to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive. And the US, as publicly indicated by Demspey, has been seeking to prevent any such Israeli action. In recent days, reports have suggested that the US may set “red lines” for Iran that, if crossed, would prompt a US-led resort to force — a possibility publicly welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.