The former head of the US Transportation Security Administration said that he expected American-Israeli defense cooperation to expand in coming years, as the two countries collaborate on military projects and band together against an increasingly unpredictable Middle East.
Peter Neffenger, a retired vice commandant of the US Coast Guard and head of the TSA during Barack Obama’s last 18 months as president, visited Israel this month as part of a delegation of 10 former high-ranking US military officials with a group known as the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
“It really is impressive to see how close the relationship is, particularly among the military services… but what impressed all of us was the need for that relationship to stay strong and grow into the future,” he told The Times of Israel on Monday, a day before the delegation was due to fly back to the US.
“The relations between the two countries are as strong as they’ve been — and they’re growing stronger,” he said. “I actually see opportunity for more of that in the coming months.”
Neffenger said the security cooperation will likely grow as the US relies on Israel’s intelligence and geographic presence in order to track developments in the region. “It’s a very different Middle East than it used to be,” he said.
The development and testing of advanced military equipment, like the F-35 stealth fighter jet, would also keep the two countries close, he added.
Neffenger noted that while he and the other participants are no longer active service members, they still closely follow US policies. The retired admiral, for instance, started working as a senior fellow in the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank earlier this year.
During the 10-day paid trip, he and the other retired generals met with the head of the Mossad, IDF generals, the deputy head of the Shin Bet security service and other Israeli officials in order to learn about the threats facing the Jewish state and what Israel is doing to tackle them.
“You got a tough neighborhood around you,” the former TSA chief said over the phone.
The retired vice admiral and the other three- and four-star American generals met with the head of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, the head of the IDF’s 210th Division in the Northern Command Brig. Gen. Yaniv Asor, the head of the Israeli Navy Maj. Gen. Eli Sharvit, and the head of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel.
According to Neffenger, by visiting Israel’s borders and meeting directly with Israeli security officials, the group was able to see the country’s “strategic challenges” up close and also “immediately see how [policies] have to be applied every single day at the tactical level.”
They visited a Hamas terror tunnel that the IDF uncovered inside Israeli territory and toured the Syrian border to understand how the IDF is dealing with (and allegedly involved in) the civil war just a few kilometers away, Neffenger said.
“You face threats from Hezbollah, Hamas, the growing Iranian influence in the region,” he said. “Of course, having the war right next door to you in Syria — not even thinking about the refugee problem and human suffering coming out of that — [represents] a very real strategic challenge to you.”
As a former commander in the US Coast Guard, Neffenger said he also took a particular interest in Israel’s naval concerns. Unlike the “expeditionary” US Navy, Israel’s seamen historically stayed close to home, worrying mostly about the country’s beaches and ports.
However, the discovery of natural gas reserves off Israel’s coast changed that dynamic, giving the Israeli Navy a new strategic interest to defend.
“We could hear in the [navy chief’s] presentation how that changed perhaps the entire policy underpinning of the service,” Neffenger said. “How do you incorporate this new strategic interest into what used to be just daily operational challenges? Clearly this is something that your military is thinking about.”
The trip was organized by JINSA with the assistance of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. It took nearly six months to lock down the itinerary as so many high-ranking Israeli officials were involved, according to a military official.
This was the retired vice admiral’s fourth trip to Israel, but for most of the participants, this was their first time in the Jewish state.
For Israel, these annual JINSA visits are seen as an opportunity to both teach retired US generals about Israel’s security situation and forge connections between Israeli and American defense officials, which can have considerable influence on US policies.
Neffenger was already more acquainted with Israeli security challenges and techniques than most of the other US officials on the trip, having consulted with Israeli officials on the issue of airport security in his capacity as head of the TSA.
Israel is considered a world leader in airport security, developing many of the techniques and technologies that are now in use at terminals around the world.
“Israel was one of the first countries I visited when I became TSA administrator,” Neffenger said. “We’ve learned a lot from you about behavioral detection and modeling, about explosive detection and the types of training you need to give to your screening workforce.”
However, the former TSA administrator noted that Israel has a different culture and set of laws that allow its airport authority to adopt measures that the US cannot, Neffenger said.
He added that Israel has another advantage when it comes to airport security. “You have one major airport that you have to protect. The US has about 450.”