VILNIUS, Lithuania — A major US-led military exercise with 18,000 soldiers from 19 primarily NATO countries has kicked off in the alliance’s eastern flank involving Poland and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Non-NATO member Israel will be taking part in Saber Strike for the first time. Several dozen combat soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces’ Paratroopers Brigade will take part, Haaretz reported.
The US Army Europe said Sunday the Saber Strike 18 drill is spread around the region until June 15 as “a demonstration of the commitment and solidarity of the Alliance” at a time when Russia’s military maneuvers are increasingly worrying nearby NATO members.
It stressed, however, that Saber Strike “is not a provocation of Russia.”
NATO has deployed some 6,000 troops in the Baltics and Poland.
Lithuania’s defense ministry also announced the start of the country’s largest-ever national drill, “Thunder Storm,” with some 9,000 troops.
Israel has been a partner of NATO since 1994. From 2010 to 2016, its attempts to open an official mission at the organization’s headquarters in Brussels were stymied by Turkey. In September of 2016 NATO recognized an official Israeli ambassador to the alliance and granted Israel a permanent office.
On Saturday NATO’s secretary-general said the alliance wouldn’t come to Israel’s defense in case of attack by Iran.
Jens Stoltenberg told the magazine Der Spiegel that Israel is a partner, but not a member and that NATO’s “security guarantee” doesn’t apply to the Jewish state.
Stoltenberg said NATO isn’t involved in Mideast peace efforts or in conflicts in the region.
NATO’s treaty requires the alliance to militarily defend members nations, of which there are 28, but not partner ones. Still, partner states regularly contribute to NATO operations such as those in Afghanistan and naval missions off Somalia and in the Mediterranean Sea.
He spoke at a time of rising Israel-Iran tensions. Israel has been waging a campaign to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria and Lebanon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also led opposition the Iran nuclear deal, calling for it to be scrapped or fixed. The US withdrew last month.