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Gantz says regional air defense alliance has already thwarted Iranian attacks

Defense minister hopes pact will expand with Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia; says Israel has ‘powerful’ responses ready amid efforts by Tehran to target Israeli tourists in Turkey

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

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, June 20, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/ Knesset spokesperson's office)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, June 20, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/ Knesset spokesperson's office)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Monday that an “already in action” air defense pact between Israel and its regional allies had already served to thwart Iran, and that he hoped it would expand with US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia next month.

During a briefing to lawmakers at the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Gantz said Israel and its regional allies — under US leadership — were developing a joint defense pact to protect against the threat of drones and missiles by Tehran and its regional proxies.

“I have been leading for the past year together with my colleagues at the Pentagon and the [Biden] administration an extensive program to strengthen cooperation between Israel and the countries of the region, under American leadership and CENTCOM, which I hope will take another step forward in [US] President [Joe] Biden’s important visit to the Middle East,” he said.

“Part of that vision is what I call MEAD, Middle East Air Defense, which we are building amid Iran’s attempts to hit the region’s countries with rockets, cruise missiles and UAVs,” he said.

“This plan is already in action and has already thwarted Iranian attempts to challenge Israel and other countries in the Middle East,” Gantz said.

The idea of a joint air defense system between Israel and its Arab neighbors is not new; it was raised during the Negev Summit of foreign ministers from Israel, the US, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt last March. It was also reportedly discussed in talks between the US and Saudi Arabia that Washington hopes will culminate in Riyadh taking steps toward normalizing ties with Israel.

Biden’s highly anticipated first trip to the Middle East will include stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia from July 13 to July 16.

An Iranian Shahed-136 drone is launched during a military exercise in Iran, December 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)

According to reports, the opportunity for the airborne defense coalition followed normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries, including the UAE and Bahrain, which are geographically closer to Iran.

Israeli military officials have said they have seen an increase in Iranian use of drone attacks in recent years, dubbing it Iran’s “UAV terror.” The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed it intercepted at least four Iranian drones heading for Israel or the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years. Another two drones launched from Iran en route to Israel were intercepted by US jets over Iraq in February.

The IDF believes Iran is attempting to arm all of its proxies in the region — in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen — with hundreds and even thousands of UAVs, in addition to providing military training.

Illustrative: Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, left, and Commander of the Army Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi visit an underground drone base tunnel of the Army in the heart of the country’s western Zagros Mountains, Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Iranian Army via AP)

CENTCOM — the United States Central Command — officially assumed responsibility for the US military’s relationship with Israel in September last year.

Until then, Israel had been kept in the area of responsibility of EUCOM in order to prevent possible tensions between CENTCOM and the Arab and Muslim nations under its purview, many of which did not maintain formal ties with Israel and would therefore not want to be considered as mutual allies.

In recent years, however, CENTCOM’s Arab allies have increasingly developed relations with Israel, some informally, so the issues have largely faded.

The US Central Command’s area of responsibility stretches across the Middle East to Central Asia, including the Persian, or Arab Gulf region, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Also during Monday’s briefing, Gantz said he had ordered Israel’s defense establishment to prepare a “powerful” retaliation to any potential Iranian attack on Israelis in Turkey.

Turkish riot police officers walk in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul on June 14, 2022. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

Tensions between Israel and Iran have intensified in recent weeks, after the assassination of a top Iranian officer in Tehran last month that it blames on Israel, a number of other deaths of security and scientific personnel inside Iran, airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria, threatening rhetoric from Iranian leaders, and Iran’s increasing violations of nuclear agreements.

These tensions led Israel to urge its citizens in Turkey to leave immediately in recent days, over concerns that Iranian agents were planning to kill or kidnap Israelis there. The warnings came amid reports in the press that Israeli and Turkish intelligence had together thwarted several planned attacks by a broad network of Iranian agents, nabbing some of the suspects.

“I instructed the defense establishment to prepare powerful responses and we will trigger them as needed. We also have a variety of options for action, with a variety of goals — and harming Israeli citizens will lead us to activate them,” Gantz said during a briefing at the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We will know how to respond in the time, place, and means of our choosing, to any aggressive action by Iran, in any dimension, and anywhere — physical or cyber,” he added.

Gantz’s comments came hours after Israel’s National Cyber Directorate suspected that rocket sirens heard in Jerusalem and Eilat on Sunday were the result of a cyberattack. Officials were examining whether Iranian hackers were behind the alleged attack, according to unsourced reports in Hebrew-language media.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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