Gantz speaks with Pentagon head as IDF chief said planning US visit

Austin confirms US ‘ironclad support for Israel’s security’; upcoming talks expected to focus on Iran amid US plans to renter nuclear deal

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, walks alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during an honor guard ceremony at Israel's military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 11, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, walks alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during an honor guard ceremony at Israel's military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 11, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke Friday with his US counterpart Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in talks aimed at bolstering the ceasefire agreed last week between Israel and Hamas.

“Secretary Austin reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad support for Israel’s security,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “He shared the [US] Administration’s support for building on the ceasefire to establish enduring security.”

The conversation came after a week of intense US diplomacy in the region following 11 days of fighting between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

The latest military confrontation with Hamas ended in a ceasefire last Friday. It began on May 10 when Hamas launched a massive rocket barrage on Israeli cities, sparking IDF retaliatory strikes and 11 days of fighting, leaving 13 dead in Israel and over 240 fatalities in Gaza. The Israeli army said most of those killed in Gaza were terror combatants.

It also came amid reports that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi was set to travel to the US to hold a series of talks with US military leaders, largely aimed at Israeli efforts to persuade Washington not to reenter the Iran nuclear deal.

Likely alluding to Iran, the Pentagon statement said “both parties agreed to remain in close coordination on shared defense priorities.”

There was no immediate Israeli readout on the call which was announced after midnight Friday when it was already the Sabbath in Israel.

Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported Friday that Kohavi would soon travel to the US to discuss the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and its entrenchment throughout the region. There was no immediate confirmation from the military.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (L) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R). (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Minister)

Kohavi had been set to visit the US in April — his first trip there since entering his position — but called it off amid rising violence in Gaza and the West Bank.

He was initially supposed to meet with a number of top US defense officials, including Austin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, head of the US Central Command Kenneth McKenzie, and head of the US Special Operations Command Richard Clark.

While Kohavi canceled, a number of other top Israeli defense officials visited the United States, including National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, and IDF Military Intelligence commander Tamir Hayman.

While efforts to build on the ceasefire would be on his agenda,  Iran will again take top billing in his talks, Kan reported.

The Biden administration intends to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, a move that Israeli officials, including Kohavi, staunchly and publicly oppose.

Shortly after US President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, Kohavi made waves with a particularly blunt, overt speech arguing against the US rejoining the deal, saying it was a “bad thing.”

Israel is generally concerned that the US is rushing too quickly into a return to the 2015 accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and is ignoring the concerns of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, notably those in the Gulf.

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP)

This week saw US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Israel looking to shore up the ceasefire. He also visited the West Bank, Egypt and Jordan during his tour of the region.

In an interview with Channel 12 that aired Wednesday, Blinken stressed Biden’s support for rejoining the 2015 international accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program if Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes.

Blinken acknowledged differences with Israel over how to prevent Iran from an atomic bomb, but insisted the countries were united in opposing such a prospect.

“We are joined in that goal and in that commitment. It’s also no secret that over time we’ve had differences over the best way to get there, to make sure that Iran does not get a weapon,” Blinken said.

While meeting Tuesday with Netanyahu, the premier told Blinken he hopes the US does not return to the JCPOA in its current form, arguing it will allow Iran to acquire nuclear arms.

The secretary of state argued the nuclear deal was doing “exactly what it set out to accomplish,” saying Iran would have needed at least a year to produce enough material for an atomic weapon before former US president Donald Trump pulled out. Now Iran could obtain sufficient material in a “very short order,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his office in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

“And so far from getting less dangerous without the deal, it’s gotten more dangerous,” he warned.

If the deal is restored, Blinken said the Biden administration will seek to make it “longer and stronger” and to also address Iran’s “destabilizing activities in the region, proliferation of weapons, support for terrorist groups, et cetera.” He added this could include an extension of the so-called sunset clauses, which allow Iran to begin resuming some nuclear work when they start expiring in 2025.

Blinken said “the jury is still out” on whether the Islamic Republic is willing to reverse its breaches of the deal since Trump withdrew America from the agreement in 2018. Biden has repeatedly said the US will return to compliance with the deal if Iran does.

“I think we’ve clarified increasingly what each side would need to do to come back into compliance with the JCPOA, but it remains an unanswered question whether Iran is actually prepared to do what it needs to do to come back into compliance,” Blinken said of the talks.

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