Gantz leaves to US for security talks centered on Iran, Ukraine

Defense Minister urges regional coordination against Iran ahead of meetings with top Biden adviser Sullivan and Pentagon chief Austin; itinerary does not mention Abu Akleh death

Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrives to a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrives to a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Iran’s nuclear program and the war in Ukraine will be the focus of security talks with Washington this week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said late Tuesday as he took off for a several-day trip to the US.

Gantz is set to meet with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan during two days in Washington, amid growing fears over advancing nuclear enrichment in Iran and a widening gulf with Russia over Syria and Ukraine.

“I will discuss bolstering joint security cooperation and dealing with regional challenges, chief among them Iran, which all moderate actors in the region must unite against,” Gantz said according to his spokesperson.

“We will also discuss Ukraine and other matters important to world, regional and Israeli security,” he added, without expanding.

The statement from Gantz’s office did not mention talks over the killing of Palestinian-American al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh — who was shot as she covered a firefight between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in Jenin last week — though the subject is expected come up.

The US has strongly condemned the slaying of Abu Akleh as well as violence between police and mourners at her Jerusalem funeral, but has refrained from assigning blame for her death.

Israeli police confront mourners as they carry the casket of slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral in east Jerusalem, on May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Levin)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has charged that Israel “executed” Abu Akleh. Israeli officials, including Gantz, at first said it was likely Palestinian gunmen had mistakenly shot her, but later said errant Israeli sniper fire could also possibly have caused her death.

Israel has reportedly asked the US to help pressure Ramallah into handing over the bullet taken from her body, which Jerusalem says is necessary to definitively determine who killed her.

Gantz is set to arrive in Washington early Wednesday afternoon, and will meet with Sullivan at the White House shortly after, according to a schedule published by Gantz’s office. He is scheduled to meet Austin at the Pentagon Thursday morning before taking off for Miami, where he will deliver an address to a conference for families of Israeli servicemembers killed in the course of their work.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (right) hosts an honor cordon welcoming Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Pentagon in Washington on June 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Gantz will fly to New York on Sunday, where he will march in the city’s annual parade to honor Israel, which is returning after a two-year break. On Sunday night, he is scheduled to deliver an address to another event for bereaved families.

Gantz’s office did not announce any plans for his return, but there are no public events scheduled for after Sunday and he will likely be expected back for critical Knesset votes as early as Monday.

Gantz left Israel just as US Central Command chief Michael Kurilla was set to arrive to oversee a major joint defense exercise that will reportedly include US tankers refueling Israeli jets in mid-air, in what is being seen as a signal to Iran.

A US Air Force B-52H “Stratofortress” from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., is refueled by a KC-135 “Stratotanker” in the US Central Command area of responsibility, Dec. 30, 2020. (Senior Airman Roslyn Ward/U.S. Air Force via AP)

Gantz last met with Austin at the Pentagon in December, and the two discussed bilateral ties, the Iranian threat, and Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Gantz warned that Iran is just a “few weeks” from accumulating sufficient fissile material for a bomb and is also working to finish the production and installation of 1,000 advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium.

“Iran … stands just a few weeks away from accumulating fissile material that will be sufficient for a first bomb, holds 60 kg of enriched material at 60%, produces metallic uranium at the enrichment level of 20%, and prevents the IAEA from accessing its facilities,” he said during a conference at Herzliya’s Reichman University.

Talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal have stalled. There is concern that Iran could be closer to being able to construct an atomic weapon if it chose to pursue one.

In this frame grab from Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, three versions of domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from Natanz, an Iranian uranium enrichment plant, in Iran, June 6, 2018. (IRIB via AP)

The nuclear deal collapsed four years ago when former US president Donald Trump withdrew the United States and imposed crushing sanctions on Iran. In the meantime, Iran has vastly expanded its nuclear work, while insisting that it is for peaceful purposes.

“The price for tackling the Iranian challenge on a global or regional level is higher than it was a year ago and lower than it will be in a year,” Gantz said.

The defense minister also said two Iranian drones downed over Iraq in February were intended to reach terror groups in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.

Speaking on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Gantz said Israel was in the right place “ethically and strategically,” adding that he supports transferring additional defensive equipment to Ukraine.

Demonstrators carry placards and Ukrainian flags during a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, May 8, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel had avoided aligning too closely with either side since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24 in hopes of keeping ties with Russia intact given the Kremlin’s control of Syria’s airspace. However, Gantz recently announced that Israel would send helmets and flack jackets to Ukrainian rescue workers, and ties between Jerusalem and Moscow have soured in the wake of reports of widespread civilian killings by Russian troops and comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claiming that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood.”

Gantz said supporting Ukraine must not come at the cost of Israel’s “broad operational considerations, which are also an anchor for regional stability.”

Israeli strikes have continued in Syrian airspace even as ties with Moscow have deteriorated, including a reported bombing run on Friday on a base in northwest Syria thought to be used by Iranian forces. According to an Israeli television report, Israeli planes were targeted by Russian S-300 air defense batteries for the first time.

It was not immediately clear if the S-300 missile fire was a one-time warning or signaled a policy shift by Moscow to no longer allow Israel near-unfettered access to Syria’s skies.

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