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Top US commander stops in Israel on world tour, amid lingering Iran tensions

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley meets with Defense Minister Gantz, IDF chief Kohavi after visits to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Afghanistan

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley lights a menorah on the eighth night of the Hannukah holiday alongside Cpt. Josh Gerstein and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi in army headquarters in Tel Aviv on December 17, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley lights a menorah on the eighth night of the Hannukah holiday alongside Cpt. Josh Gerstein and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi in army headquarters in Tel Aviv on December 17, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley stopped in Israel on Thursday during a whirlwind tour of the region, to discuss the threats from Iran facing the Jewish state, the Israel Defense Forces said.

During his two-day visit, Milley met first with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Thursday night at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, receiving briefings from a number of top IDF officers, including the head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, the defense attaché to the US, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, and the head of the IDF’s Iran Command, Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman.

“The overviews dealt with the regional security challenges in the Middle East and with issues related to force build-up,” the IDF said in a statement.

On Friday morning Milley met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Kohavi at Gantz’s office in Tel Aviv.

“During the meeting, they discussed the challenges and different changes in the operational situation in the Middle East,” the defense minister’s office said. “Gantz stressed to Milley the importance of continued pressure on the regime in Iran and the IDF’s preparedness for all eventualities in the face of Iran’s regional aggression and nuclear armament.”

From left, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Minister Benny Gantz meet in military headquarters in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Milley’s relatively short visit came amid lingering tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran over the killing of the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Brig. Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, last month, for which the Islamic Republic has blamed Israel. Iranian military officials have vowed to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s death, threatening to attack both Israeli and American targets.

The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff’s visit to Israel came after stops in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

During his meeting with Milley, Gantz told the American official that the presence of the US military in the Middle East was an “important element in regional stability, which must be preserved.”

The chairman also visited the IDF’s experimental “Ghost Unit,” an IDF Ground Forces detachment that tests out new fighting techniques and technology. The unit demonstrated a number of tactics for the American general at the Palmachim Air Base in central Israel, the military said.

This was Milley’s third visit to Israel as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. His previous visit to Israel was in July, though he has met with Kohavi since then, albeit virtually, with the two holding a video conference call last month following the ousting of Mark Esper as US secretary of defense.

During Milley’s visit to Tel Aviv, he and Kohavi lit a menorah to mark the eighth night of the Hanukka holiday.

The remains of US soldiers killed in a helicopter crash on a Sinai peacekeeping mission arrive back in the United States, November 17, 2020 (Screen grab)

Also in attendance — through a video link — was an American member of the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai Peninsula who survived a helicopter crash last month in which eight peacekeepers were killed, including six Americans. The soldier, Staff Sgt. Jarelle Turner, who was brought to Israel for medical treatment after the crash, was joined by members of Israel’s search-and-rescue Unit 669, who took part in the operation.

They were also joined by a US-born IDF rabbi, Josh Gerstein, whose family has a history of service in the American military, including his grandfather who was a chaplain in the US Army during World War II, the IDF said.

During the ceremony, Kohavi praised Milley and the United States in general for its security cooperation with the IDF.

“I am glad to have this opportunity to host Gen. Milley for the third time in the IDF and I thank him for this significant visit in Israel,” Kohavi said. “The close connection between the IDF and the US military is of the utmost strategic importance and is seen in operational and technological cooperation, which strengthens the IDF every day in the Middle East.”

Milley said he was particularly thrilled to be in Israel for the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, “when all the hanukkiah candles are burning at their full power, as befits a people and a nation that spreads so much light in the world. Happy Hanukkah!”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made his stop in Israel following a trip to Afghanistan in which he met with representatives of the Taliban to discuss an emerging peace treaty there, as well as to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where he discussed “the current security environment throughout the Middle East,” according to the US military.

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