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Gantz: Israel is building a Middle East air defense alliance against Iran

Defense minister hints at report on US-led talks between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others to counter Tehran’s missiles and drones; stresses opposition to ‘bad nuclear deal’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads a meeting of his Blue and White faction at the Knesset on May 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads a meeting of his Blue and White faction at the Knesset on May 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel is building a regional air defense alliance to defend its members from Iran, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Monday, appearing to confirm, at least in part, a report that the Israeli military was in talks with its Saudi and Qatari counterparts on the matter.

“We are building our wide partnership with additional countries in the region to ensure a secure, stable and prosperous Middle East. Among other things, this also includes aerial defense,” Gantz said, speaking at the start of his Blue and White party’s faction meeting in the Knesset.

“We will strengthen this, as a stable Middle East is an international, regional and Israeli interest of the highest order,” he said.

Gantz was apparently alluding to a Wall Street Journal report from Sunday that said the United States organized talks earlier this year about countering the threat posed by Iranian missiles and drones in the Middle East with representatives from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan. Israel does not maintain official ties with either Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

Though Gantz did confirm the efforts to form a regional air defense alliance, he did not comment specifically on the direct coordination with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The report came just ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region, including to both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Of course, we are all preparing for Biden’s visit to the Middle East and Israel, which I hope will have a positive influence and maybe even bring a breakthrough in our ability to act against Iranian aggression in the region,” Gantz said.

US President Joe Biden speaks at a change of command ceremony at US Coast Guard headquarters, June 1, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

According to the Wall Street Journal report, the summit was held in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi attended the event alongside Gen. Fayyadh bin Hamed Al Ruwaili, the chief of staff of the Saudi armed forces. Representing the US was Gen. Frank McKenzie, the then-head of the US Central Command.

It was the first time that such high-ranking officers from Israel and Arab countries had met under US military auspices, according to the report.

In his remarks Monday, Gantz stresses Israel’s concerns about a renewed nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran, in light of the expected resumption of indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran on the matter.

“Israel does not necessarily oppose a nuclear agreement, it opposes a bad nuclear agreement. This is the official position of Israel, which has been openly and frankly expressed to our allies in the world,” he said.

“With the expected resumption of nuclear talks, we will continue to work together with the United States and other countries in order to make our position clear and to influence the design of the deal if there indeed will be one. In any case, we will continue intently to defend ourselves with our own forces, to build that force, to act against Iran and its process, and to be prepared for the possibility that it breaks out to a nuclear [weapon],” he said.

For nearly the past two years, the IDF has been preparing plans and training for the possibility of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Though US officials have stressed the need for a diplomatic solution to the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, the American military has regularly taken part in or observed Israel’s preparations.

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