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Meeting senior US general, Bennett warns restoring Iran nuke deal a ‘real danger’

Defense minister and president also meet outgoing CENTCOM commander McKenzie, who oversees American forces in region

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

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C), IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (R) and Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, pose for a photo on March 3, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C), IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (R) and Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, pose for a photo on March 3, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Thursday with Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the outgoing commander of US Central Command, which oversees American military forces in the region.

According to Bennett’s office, the two discussed “common security challenges facing Israel and the United States, and above all Iran’s aggression in the region.”

“The Prime Minister also stressed the real danger of world powers signing the nuclear agreement [with Iran], if and when it occurs,” a statement said. There have been some reports that a deal is imminent.

The negotiations to revive the accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, involve Iran as well as France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China directly, and the United States indirectly.

France said on Monday it was “critical” that negotiators trying to restore the deal reach an agreement this week.

The original 2015 agreement gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, but the US unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump, who reimposed heavy economic sanctions.

That prompted Iran to begin rolling back its own commitments and enrich uranium to a purity level that is only a short technical step away from what is needed to produce atomic weapons.

(R) IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata meet with Gen. Frank McKenzie (L), the head of US Central Command on March 3, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Bennett thanked McKenzie for his “contribution to strengthening security and stability in the region, as well as for the significant cooperation between the State of Israel and the United States during his tenure.”

McKenzie arrived in Israel on Wednesday evening for a three-day official visit, the final one of his tenure.

Earlier Thursday, after a ceremonial welcome by Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi, McKenzie met with President Isaac Herzog and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Gantz said the meeting centered on “recent developments, including the Iranian issue and the consequences of the war in Ukraine. Israel will continue to be committed to the excellent relationship between the US and Israeli militaries, and to [the] deepening of relations,” Gantz said in a statement.

Herzog also thanked McKenzie for his “contributions to Israel’s security,” according to his spokesperson.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L), and Gen. Frank McKenzie (R), the head of US Central Command, pose for a photo on March 3, 2022. (Defense Ministry)

McKenzie is expected to retire from the US military in the coming months. He is to be succeeded by Michael Kurilla, who currently serves as commander of the US Army 18th Airborne Corps.

CENTCOM 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.

“Moving Israel to CENTCOM… allows us to strengthen security relations and work together for the stability of the Middle East,” Gantz said Thursday.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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