'Time running out' on tackling Iran, defense minister says

Gallant tells Austin it’s time for US to honor pledge to prevent Iran getting nukes

Defense minister thanks Washington for continued support in face of threats from Tehran and its proxies, as his host urges diplomatic solution to head off war with Hezbollah

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (R) welcomes Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to the Pentagon in Washington, June 25, 2024. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (R) welcomes Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to the Pentagon in Washington, June 25, 2024. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday that “time is running out” in the fight to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and stressed that Israel and the US must work together to prevent the threat from being actualized.

“The greatest threat to the future of the world and the future of our region is Iran,” Gallant told his counterpart during a meeting at the Pentagon. “Now is the time to realize the commitment of the American administrations over the years to promise to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons.”

The meeting between the two defense chiefs came amid increased tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group has been launching near-daily attacks on northern Israel since October 8, claiming that it is doing so in support of fellow Iranian proxy Hamas as it wages war with Israel in Gaza.

Israel is “at a crossroads that will impact the entire Middle East,” Gallant told Austin. “In Gaza, we must work together to ensure the return of 120 hostages, without exception. We must end Hamas’s terrorist regime.”

A proposal drawn up by Israel and presented by US President Joe Biden last month would see the hostages returned to Israel during a prolonged ceasefire that would also aim to restore a semblance of normalcy to the citizens of the war-torn Gaza Strip.

Acknowledging Israel’s readiness to bring a deal with Hamas to fruition, Austin echoed the US’s previously stated position that the onus is now on Hamas to accept the agreement.

“The failure of Hamas to accept this important proposal is prolonging the agony of Palestinian civilians and Israeli civilians alike,” he said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant attends a meeting at the Pentagon with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington, June 25, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Minister)

On the Lebanon border, Gallant said that Israel was “determined to establish security, change the reality on the ground and bring our communities safely back home.

“We are working closely together to achieve an agreement, but we must also discuss readiness for every possible scenario,” he said, acknowledging the US’s desire to avoid all-out war given the dire impact such a war would have on both Israeli and Lebanese civilians.

“Hezbollah’s provocations threaten to drag the Israeli and Lebanese people into a war that they do not want, and such a war would be a catastrophe for Lebanon and it would be devastating for innocent Israeli and Lebanese civilians,” Austin told Gallant. “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah could easily become a regional war with terrible consequences for the Middle East, and so diplomacy is by far the best way to prevent more escalation,” he added, seemingly alluding to concerns that Iran and all its regional proxies would join the fighting.

Thus, Austin added, the US is “urgently seeking a diplomatic agreement that restores lasting calm to Israel’s northern border and enables civilians to return safely to their homes on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border.”

The US is committed to ensuring Israel has the ability to defend itself against Tehran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, he stressed.

“Israel’s citizens still face very real and very dangerous threat from Iran and from its terrorist partners and proxies, including Hezbollah, the Houthis, and of course, Hamas,” Austin said. “The United States will always support Israel’s right to defend itself, and the United States will always ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself.

“And you can see that profound commitment yet again in our recent agreement on a third squadron of F-35s for Israel. We stand together to ensure that Iran, which is the source of so much of the region’s violence and instability, can never achieve a nuclear weapon,” he added.

Since the outbreak of war with Hamas on October 7, when the terror group massacred some 1,200 people and seized 251 hostages in a shock assault on southern Israel, Austin has traveled to Israel four times, and has spoken to Gallant “more than 50 times,” he said, demonstrating the depth of the US’s commitments to Israel.

The US also “helped defend Israel against the unprecedented Iranian attack on April 13th, in which 99 percent of Iran’s missiles and UAVs failed to reach their targets,” Austin continued. “President Biden has also signed the national security supplemental with more than $14 billion in assistance for Israel.”

In mentioning the US commitment to ensure Israel has the ability to defend itself, Austin appeared to be responding to a recent accusation leveled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington has been withholding weapons shipments during wartime.

The White House has dismissed Netanyahu’s claims as untrue and “perplexing,” before saying that it would not keep responding to the premier’s “political statements,” and instead welcomed “constructive consultations” with Gallant.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greets Defense Minister Yoav Gallant as he arrives during an honor cordon at the Pentagon on June 25, 2024 in Arlington, Virginia. (Andrew Harnik/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/Getty Images via AFP)

The defense minister, for his part, did not directly address the spat between Netanyahu and the White House, but profusely thanked the US for the unprecedented support it has shown Israel since the shock terror assault carried out by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7 and the ensuing war with the terror group in Gaza.

“As soon as Hamas launched its brutal attack on October 7, you were the first to fly to Israel on October 13. You stood with us then and you stand with us today,” he said at the start of his remarks. “The people of Israel will never forget these moments. The president, the administration, and you personally, have been with us since day one.”

Along with the two defense chiefs, the meeting was attended by Defense Minister Director General Eyal Zamir, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog and Israel’s defense attaché to Washington Hedy Silberman.

The US defense chief did not shy away from addressing contentious issues, as Gallant had said the two would discuss various disagreements “as friends do,” and warned that Israel must do more to protect vulnerable Palestinians, both in Gaza and in the West Bank, while pushing for Israel to pursue an option for a post-Hamas-ruled Gaza that involved the Palestinian Authority.

Israel is fighting a “cruel and ruthless foe,” in Gaza, he acknowledged. “But I learned firsthand that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians, so Israel must continue to do more to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza, and that’s both a moral necessity and a strategic imperative.”

Similarly, Austin said he remains “extremely concerned about the attacks by violent Israeli extremists against innocent Palestinians in the West Bank.”

“I look forward to discussing how both of our governments can work with the Palestinian Authority and our regional partners to increase security in the West Bank and bring stability to Gaza by credible planning for a postwar period and by moving on a path towards a two-state solution,” Austin said, throwing a spotlight the disagreement between the allies on what the future of the Gaza Strip will look like.

“Israelis and Palestinians both have the right to live in dignity and security, and as we move forward, our security bond with Israel will remain rock-solid.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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