Gantz speaks to US defense chief Esper on Iranian threat, ‘regional concerns’

First phone call between defense minister and his American counterpart also addresses Israeli arms purchases

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

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, center, and Northern Command chief Amir Baram in northern Israel on June 2, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, center, and Northern Command chief Amir Baram in northern Israel on June 2, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday spoke with his American counterpart, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, discussing Iran’s activities in the Middle East and other “regional security concerns,” Gantz’s office said.

It was his first such conversation with Esper since entering his position last month.

“The two discussed both governments’ efforts to address the novel coronavirus and the need to deter adversaries that may seek to exploit global attention to the pandemic,” Gantz’s office said in a statement.

“They reviewed shared interests on regional security concerns, with an emphasis on the necessity to halt the Iranian threat, as well as opportunities to build a more stable and prosperous Middle East,” it added.

Former defense minister Naftali Bennett (left) and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2020. (US Department of Defense)

Earlier this year, Naftali Bennett, who was the defense minister at the time, said he and Esper had agreed that Israel would focus on confronting Iranian military activities in Syria while the United States would confront the Islamic Republic’s efforts in Iraq.

Gantz’s spokesperson refused to comment on whether Gantz and Esper discussed Israel’s reported plans to annex portions of the West Bank.

During the call, Gantz and Esper also discussed plans in the coming weeks to streamline Israel’s arms purchases from the United States.

Gantz’s office said he also “expressed appreciation for the US commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge,” a reference to a policy — enshrined in law — that requires the United States to ensure the Jewish state maintains a military advantage over countries in the region, which can limit American arms sales to other Middle Eastern states.

“Secretary Esper and Minister Gantz committed to meeting in person at the earliest opportunity,” Gantz’s office said.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 9, 2020. (Kenzo Tribouillard, Pool Photo via AP)

Earlier in the day, Gantz spoke with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, stressing his commitment to peace with the Palestinians but avoiding mentioning Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Gantz tweeted that he had told Borrell he was “committed to pursuing peace” and “emphasized that we will work through diplomatic channels, keeping an open dialogue with the European community and with our regional partners, while doing everything necessary to protect Israel’s security.”

The statement made no explicit mention of Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, for which Borrell slammed Jerusalem in a statement last month.

Gantz said he and Borrell discussed “deepening the ties between Israel and the EU, the significance of our partnership and the strong collaboration we share.”

He also urged the EU to increase its pressure on Iran, in an apparent reaction to the International Atomic Energy Agency recently concluding that the Islamic Republic has breached the terms of the nuclear deal that it signed with world powers in 2015 and from which the United States withdrew in 2018.

“I highlighted the importance of the European Union actively working to block Iran’s dangerous nuclear armament, through applying massive pressure and extending the embargo on arms supply to the regime,” Gantz said.

Hebrew-language media reported Wednesday that some European countries could retaliate to unilateral Israeli annexation of sections of the West Bank by recognizing a Palestinian state and sanctioning Israel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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