New US defense secretary speaks to Gantz, vows to uphold Israel’s military edge

Israeli defense minister raises ‘need to deal with Iran’s aggression’ in phone call with US counterpart Lloyd Austin, whom he knew when both were still in uniform

Then Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP)
Then Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke Thursday evening with newly appointed US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, discussing the Iranian threat to regional stability and the defense cooperation between the two allies, the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, and Austin, a retired four-star US Army general, were previously acquainted when they both were still in uniform.

During the phone call, Gantz wished Austin success and said that he looks forward to renewing their close ties.

Austin took up the position of defense secretary last week.

Gantz also raised the subject of Iranian aggression and the “need to deal with Iran’s aggression and to ensure that an effective policy is being formulated that will safeguard regional stability.”

The minister stressed “the importance of the ongoing security discourse and strategic coordination at all levels, for the issues at hand,” according to the statement.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Israel-Lebanon border on November 17, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Austin emphasized the strength of the defense alliance between the US and Israel and expressed Washington’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

Austin and Gantz said they had agreed to stay in close contact and arrange a meeting as soon as possible, the statement said.

US President Joe Biden’s policy on Iran is expected to be a point of contention between the administration and Israel.

Biden is expected to take a softer approach to Iran than his predecessor Donald Trump, and has said he will rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers if Iran returns to its terms.

The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic republic.

Israeli officials have warned against the US rejoining the Iran deal. IDF chief Aviv Kohavi issued a rare public criticism of the US plans on Tuesday and said that he had ordered the military to develop operational plans for striking Iran’s nuclear program.

Gantz appeared to rebuke Kohavi for the comments on Wednesday.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, right, listens as US President Joe Biden speaks in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, January 25, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Thursday’s phone call came the day after Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in what as at the time the highest-level contact yet between Jerusalem and the new American administration.

The two discussed “expanding the circle of peace, the Iranian threat and other issues,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Ashkenazi congratulated Blinken on his new role and expressed confidence that Jerusalem and Washington will “combat global terrorism” and the Iranian threat.

Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have yet to speak.

Tensions in the Middle East have climbed in recent months as Iran and the Trump administration exchanged a steady stream of threats before Trump’s term ended earlier this month, and Iran carried out fresh breaches of the nuclear agreement.

Iran’s aggressive moves were believed to be partially aimed at increasing its leverage ahead of negotiations with Biden.

Israeli officials have voiced strong objections to the US rejoining the nuclear deal, and have also issued threats against Iran in recent weeks.

The US flew a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber over the Middle East on Wednesday in a show of force directed at Iran. The Trump administration carried out two similar flights weeks before Trump’s term ended.

The Biden administration has pledged to consult with Israel and its Middle East allies before making decisions regarding Iran.

In another diversion from the Trump administration, Washington on Wednesday temporarily suspend its sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates — a deal clinched after the Gulf state agreed to forge ties with Israel

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