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First visit to Israel by a Biden administration official

Hosting US defense chief, Gantz says Iran nuclear deal must protect Israel

Defense minister says US is a ‘full partner across all operational theaters’; Austin doesn’t mention Tehran, pledges consultations to ensure Israel’s regional military superiority

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

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)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin touched down in Israel on Sunday, kicking off a two-day visit with a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, at military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Following the meeting, Gantz said the two had discussed the threat posed to Israel by Iran and its nuclear program, as well as plans to ensure the Jewish state’s military superiority in the region.

“During our conversations I emphasized to Secretary Austin that Israel views the United States as a full partner across all operational theaters — not least Iran,” Gantz said.

“We will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the State of Israel,” he said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, center-right, alongside Israeli defense officials meets with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and a number of American defense officials at Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 11, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni)

Austin was the first member of US President Joe Biden’s administration to pay an official visit to Israel, and this was the first official visit to the Jewish state by an American secretary of defense since 2017.

Austin refrained from discussing the Iranian issue directly in his official remarks, saying only that he and Gantz had discussed “regional security challenges.”

“I was tremendously pleased on our discussion of a number of security issues which are important to our two countries,” Austin said in Defense Ministry headquarters following the meeting.

“I appreciated hearing Minister Gantz’s perspectives about the challenges in this region,” he said.

The meeting came amid ongoing talks in Vienna regarding a return to the 2015 nuclear deal by both Iran and the United States, a move that is staunchly opposed by Israel, particularly by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu warned that Israel will not be bound by a revitalized nuclear deal between world powers and Iran. Israeli defense analysts have warned that there is a growing rift between Jerusalem and Washington on the issue of Iran and its nuclear program, which may have significant ramifications on Israel’s security.

The two defense chiefs also said they had discussed ensuring Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, or QME, a technical term referring to the country’s military superiority in the region, which the United States is legally obligated to maintain. Austin also stressed the close ties between US and Israel, despite the apparent tensions between the countries over the Iran nuclear issue.

“I reaffirmed to Minister Gantz: Our commitment to Israel is enduring and it is ironclad, and I pledged to ensure close consultation to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge and to strengthen Israel’s security,” Austin said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, meets with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, at Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 11, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni)

“This is a relationship built on trust, which has developed over decades of cooperation, and I look forward to building upon that trust in the years ahead,” he added.

Concerns were raised this past summer regarding Israel’s QME in light of plans by the Trump administration to sell F-35 fighter jets and other advanced weaponry to the United Arab Emirates following Abu Dhabi’s decision to normalize ties with Jerusalem. Gantz flew to the United States in October after the proposal was announced in order to shore up Israel’s military advantage through additional weapons purchases from the United States, which he said at the time accounted for a “major leap forward” in Israel’s national security.

“I also expressed our commitment to continuing to working closely with the United States, with true bipartisan support, on Israel’s long-term planning for defense acquisitions, to maintain Israel’s QME — essential not only as a guarantee for Israel’s security, but as a guarantor of Middle Eastern stability,” Gantz said.

Austin was scheduled to hold additional meetings with Israeli officials throughout the day on Sunday, including Netanyahu; IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi; Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman, who holds the military’s Iran portfolio; Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel; and the head of the ministry’s Political-Defense Directorate, Zohar Palti.

On Monday, Austin plans to fly to the Nevatim Air Base in the northern Negev, where the F-35 stealth fighter jet and other aircraft are housed, in order to meet Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin and representatives from Israeli defense contractors regarding various weapons systems that have been developed in Israel.

On Monday evening, Austin was scheduled to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and to lay a wreath at the Mount Herzl national cemetery ahead of Israel’s Memorial Day on Wednesday.

Austin’s visit to Israel is part of a larger trip in which he will also meet with leaders in Germany, Britain and the NATO headquarters in Belgium for talks with government and military officials, the Pentagon said Thursday.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on April 7, 2021 (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Austin arrived in Israel as reports emerged from Iran that its Natanz nuclear site had suffered a total power cut in what was widely assumed to be the result of an Israeli cyber attack. Jerusalem refused to comment on the matter, and Iran said it had not yet determined the source of the electrical disruption but was investigating the matter.

The electrical glitch came hours after Tehran began using a new, more powerful centrifuge that could reportedly enrich uranium at a much faster rate than its existing equipment.

Austin’s visit also came as representatives of the remaining parties to the troubled 2015 nuclear deal launched talks in Vienna last week on bringing the United States back into the agreement. Former president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, prompting Iran to systematically violate the agreement.

The talks broke for the weekend on Friday with a senior US official suggesting the US and Iran may be at an impasse over Tehran’s demands to lift all sanctions imposed under the Trump administration since 2017.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates new centrifuges at the Natanz plant in Iran on Saturday April 10, 2021. (Screenshot/Iranian state TV)

On Saturday, Iran announced that it has started up advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium more quickly, in a new breach of its undertakings under the troubled nuclear agreement.

Just a day earlier, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report released that Iran had again violated limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium, according to Reuters.

Austin’s visit also comes amid indications the Israel-Iran conflict was increasingly being waged at sea, marking a change in the conflict that previously took place primarily via airstrikes, cyberattacks, alleged espionage activities, and on land.

Israeli officials have refused to comment on the matter, in line with a longstanding policy of ambiguity regarding its military actions against Iran in the region, save for those that are direct, immediate retaliations for attacks on Israel.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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