Sending message ‘near and far,’ air force conducts massive drill

Exercise comes as Iran nuclear talks start in Geneva, and days after military released footage of long-range training

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

An IAF fighter is refueled during a training exercise, October 2013. (photo credit: image capture YouTube/IAF, illustrative)
An IAF fighter is refueled during a training exercise, October 2013. (photo credit: image capture YouTube/IAF, illustrative)

As talks over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program began in Geneva, Israel delivered another not-so-subtle message to Iran about its military capabilities Monday night.

The Israeli Air Force conducted an unusually large exercise over the northern border and the Mediterranean Sea overnight. Military sources confirmed the exercise Tuesday morning.

“Recently, changes have taken place across the region,” a national security official told the Walla news site. “The IDF is deployed both near and far for these changes, and last night’s exercise was meant to signal the IDF’s serious intentions to deal with these problems and thwart them.”

The exercise comes after a similar announcement last Thursday saying the IAF had conducted a series of drills in which fighter aircraft practiced a simulated strike on a distant target.

Those flights included midair refueling, exceptionally long-distance coordinated strikes, and dogfights, and were carried out over Greek waters. The video of the exercises released Thursday by the IAF marked the first time the military had made such a clip publicly available, according to Channel 10 news.

“When talking about ‘all options on the table, it’s understood that these include military options,” the air force website wrote then. “The IAF, the long arm of the IDF, is responsible for exercising the option if need be. To this end, soldiers in the squadrons of the force practice and reinforce the spectrum of skills, even in long-range flight. In this area of flying, the IAF must develop relevant operational capabilities, from focused activities to broader activities.”

Netanyahu is expected to give a speech Tuesday afternoon in which he will deliver a “diplomatic message” likely aimed at Iran, a source close to the prime minister said.

The muscle-flexing came as a series of Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman and Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, have warned that Israel is ready to act on its own to defend itself and prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Earlier this month, speaking at the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu said Israel would “stand alone” against Iran if needed.

On Tuesday, Israel’s security cabinet unanimously rejected Iran’s “cosmetic concessions” over its nuclear program.

“The international community must reject Iran’s attempts to reach a deal that leaves it with the capability to develop nuclear weapons and must insist upon a genuine and sustainable agreement,” read the statement, signaling broad approval of Netanyahu’s hawkish stance toward Iran within the government. “Iran believes it can get by with cosmetic concessions that would not significantly impede its path to developing nuclear weapons, concessions that could be reversed in weeks.”

The security cabinet consists of seven senior ministers, including Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. It also includes more dovish politicians such as Finance Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the center-left Hatnua party.

“An Iran with military nuclear capabilities would threaten world peace and stability as well as the security of countries across the Middle East, including Israel, which it threatens to annihilate,” the statement reads

Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — the so-called P5+1 — take place Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva.

The talks mark the first round of high-level negotiations since the June election of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, which has led to a limited but rapid rapprochement between the regime and the West. The détente, viewed skeptically in Jerusalem, culminated last month in a 15-minute phone call between Rouhani and US President Barack Obama, the first conversation on such a level since before Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Raphael Ahren and Gavriel Fiske contributed to this report. 

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