ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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US defense chief Austin warns Gallant not to ‘undermine’ West Bank stability

In their first call, US defense secretary ‘reaffirms commitment to Israel’s right to self-defense’; Israeli defense minister vows to do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Iran

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Left: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a ceremony at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2023; Right: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, November 16, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Left: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a ceremony at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2023; Right: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, November 16, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant not to enact policies that could “undermine security and stability in the West Bank,” during a first call between the pair on Wednesday evening, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.

The readout issued by Ryder said Austin “emphasized the importance of avoiding policies that could undermine security and stability in the West Bank, while also reaffirming his commitment to Israel’s right to self-defense.”

The West Bank has seen an uptick in violence over the past year amid an Israeli anti-terror effort, following a series of terror attacks that left 31 people dead in 2022. The raids left over 170 Palestinians dead in 2022, and another four since the beginning of the year, many of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, though some were uninvolved civilians.

The Israeli Defense Ministry said that during the call, Gallant vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

According to a statement, “Gallant emphasized in the conversation Israel’s commitment to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons… and emphasized the need to harness the international community for cooperation on the issue.”

The Pentagon readout said Austin first congratulated Gallant on entering the role, before discussing Iran and other issues.

“The two leaders agreed on the need to work together to address the wide range of regional challenges, including threats posed by Iran’s destabilizing activities,” the US statement said.

Additionally, the pair discussed the Abraham Accords — the normalization agreements Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan in 2020 — and their contribution to “security stability in the Middle East.”

Gallant and Austin “concluded that they would work to deepen and expand ties with other countries in the region,” the Defense Ministry statement added, apparently referring to Saudi Arabia.

The US readout said the pair “discussed opportunities to increase military cooperation and to advance Israel’s integration in the region, building upon the Abraham Accords.”

The pair also discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to Ryder.

The call “took place in a friendly atmosphere” and the pair agreed to meet soon, Gallant’s office added.

This September 1, 2014 file photo, shows a nuclear research reactor at the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

The call between Gallant and Austin came as the Israeli Air Force was set to hold a joint air drill with the US military this week.

Israel has been pushing for the US to prepare military contingency plans in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Jerusalem opposes US President Joe Biden’s attempts to revive a nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers that traded sanctions reliefs for curbs on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

But that issue has been less relevant lately, as nuclear talks have fizzled and the US has chosen to focus on addressing the ongoing protests in Iran against the regime.

Biden has said he is prepared to use military force if necessary, but still prefers to exhaust the diplomatic route first.

While Iran long has maintained its program is peaceful, non-proliferation experts warn Tehran has enough 60 percent enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.

Separately on Wednesday, Gallant spoke with his Cypriot counterpart, Charalambos Petrides, the Mediterranean island nation’s Defense Ministry said.

According to the Cypriot Defense Ministry, Petrides called Gallant to wish him success upon entering the role, and to discuss “expanding the long-term and robust” military ties between the nations.

There was no immediate comment from Gallant’s office on the call.

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