US Central Command chief arrives in Israel to discuss air defenses

Visit follows recent ‘war games’ discussion between visiting CENTCOM delegation and senior IDF officers; Biden viewed Israeli defense tech during trip last week

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

Michael Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command (left) meets with IDF chief, Aviv Kohavi, on July 17, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
Michael Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command (left) meets with IDF chief, Aviv Kohavi, on July 17, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Michael Erik Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), arrived in Israel on Sunday for his second official visit since entering the role in April.

His arrival followed a meeting held between a visiting delegation of CENTCOM officers and senior Israel Defense Forces officials last month, where joint action plans for a multi-front war were discussed and simulated, the IDF said.

The IDF said that Kurilla — who was most recently in Israel in May — will focus on Israel’s air defenses during his visit, without elaborating further.

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden was given a tour of Israel’s multi-tier air defense systems, including the long-range Arrow, medium-range David’s Sling, short-range Iron Dome, and an in-development high-powered laser interception system dubbed Iron Beam.

Israel hopes to partner with Washington on the Iron Beam project, including American investment in further development and deployment of the system.

Amid reports of efforts to create an integrated air defense network for Israel to cooperate with its Arab allies against Iran, a US official told The Times of Israel that the initiative is still in the works, and that Biden’s look at some of the technologies Israel exports to some of its regional allies would be a “nod” to such cooperation.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, as he is shown aerial defense systems, Wednesday, July 13, 2022, in Tel Aviv, as Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right of Biden, looks on. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Greeting Kurilla, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi said “the common interests of the United States and the State of Israel, and the ongoing cooperation regarding the challenges in the Middle East, is a major reason for the close partnership between the US Armed Forces and the IDF,” according to a statement.

“Through cooperation with the US Central Command, we have been able to promote an innovative regional defense system that will provide a broad and accurate operational response to the various security threats in the area. At the same time, we are training and developing a wide range of additional strike capabilities in the face of evolving threats,” he said.

In remarks provided by the IDF, Kurilla said ” the United States’ commitment to Israel remains ironclad.”

“Regional security remains paramount for both CENTCOM and the IDF,” he added.

Later, Kurilla met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for the first time.

CENTCOM commander Michael Erik Kurilla (left) meets with Defense Minister Gantz (center) and military chief Aviv Kohavi (right), July 17, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Minstry)

“During my first meeting with CENTCOM Commander General Kurilla, I emphasized the unparalleled defense relations between Israel and the US, as reflected during the historic POTUS visit. I also highlighted CENTCOM’s important role in maintaining regional peace and stability,” Gantz said on Twitter.

“Our discussion today focused on developing regional challenges, including Iran’s destabilizing activities via proxies and in the maritime arena. We also covered opportunities to deepen military ties and to facilitate cooperation with regional partners,” he added.

Michael Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command (right) meets with the deputy IDF chief Herzi Halevi, next to an Iron Dome air defense system, on July 17, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said that during last month’s meetings between the two militaries, “the mechanisms for operational coordination between the armies, and the main points of operational, intelligence, and technological cooperation, were reviewed,” referring to the discussion as “war games.”

According to the Haaretz daily, the discussion focused on a scenario of a war in Lebanon, but there was no talk about the possibility of direct US involvement in Israeli strikes on the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group.

Kohavi also met with the CENTCOM delegation to discuss a “joint evaluation of regional security challenges,” the military said at the time.

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 the European Command (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 issue has largely faded.

IDF and CENTCOM officials hold a joint meeting at the Israeli military’s headquarters, June 22, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Kohavi is slated to travel to Morocco on Monday in a first-ever official trip by an Israeli military chief to the North African nation.

Kohavi, who is traveling with the military’s international cooperation commander, Brig. Gen. Effie Defrin, and the head of the Intelligence Research Division, Brig. Gen. Amit Saar, will meet with senior Moroccan military officials, the IDF said.

“This visit is in addition to recent meetings and cooperation between the two countries, as part of the advancement of military-security cooperation between the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco,” the military said in a statement.

Last November, Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed a memorandum of understanding with his Moroccan counterpart, the first such agreement between Israel and an Arab state.

The agreement formalized the defense ties between the two countries, allowing for smoother cooperation between their defense establishments and making it easier for Israel to sell arms to the North African kingdom.

With the signing of the MOU, the two countries’ defense ministries and militaries can more easily speak with one another and share intelligence, whereas in the past, such communication was only possible through their respective intelligence services.

File: Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in Rabat, Morocco, November 24, 2021. the two countries normalized relations in December 2020. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

In March, senior Israeli military officials wrapped up their first official trip to Morocco, where the sides signed an accord that aimed to have the two militaries collaborate, and last month, Israeli officers and Defense Ministry officials participated in a major military drill in Morocco as observers.

Earlier this year, Kohavi traveled to Bahrain — also a first — and reportedly met with his Qatari counterpart, despite limited relations between the countries.

Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco normalized relations with Israel in 2020.

In Kohavi’s absence, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi will carry out the military chief’s responsibilities in Israel, the IDF said.

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