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In Israel, US defense chief Austin warns of heightened Iran-Russia cooperation

US defense chief Lloyd Austin said Biden administration officials are "especially disturbed" by Israeli settler violence against Palestinians, but vowed nothing would get in the way of Washington's support for Israel's security as it faces threats from Iran.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 9, 2023.

In meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials in Tel Aviv on Thursday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed to increase US support for Israel’s security and warned of increased Russian-Iranian cooperation in the battlefield in Ukraine while urging Israel to de-escalate tensions with the Palestinians.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Netanyahu’s military secretary Avi Gil also took part in the meeting with Austin. The location was switched to Ben Gurion Airport from the Defense Ministry on short notice due to scheduled protests.

The defense chief stayed on-message despite the itinerary disruption, reiterating the Biden administration’s vow to collaborate with Israel to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and also warning of the dangers of escalating violence in the West Bank, which officials in Washington increasingly worry could undermine shared US-Israeli efforts to align a regional bulwark to contain Iran.

He and the Israeli leaders “agreed to increase cooperation to confront Iranian aggression” in the region, according to a Pentagon readout of the meeting, and emphasized “the lethal consequences” of Iran’s provision of armed drones to Russia for use in Ukraine as well as the potential for Russian tech transfer back to Tehran.

“Over the past year, Russia's military cooperation with Iran has deepened, and that poses serious challenges for this region and for the safety of your citizens,” Austin said during a press conference alongside Gallant following their meeting. “Iran is gaining important battlefield expertise and experience in Ukraine which will eventually transfer to dangerous proxies in the Middle East,” the US defense secretary said.

Gallant declined to answer directly when asked by a journalist whether Austin had renewed Washington’s request that Israel send weapons to Ukraine. “This is an issue that I have to consult with the United States before announcing it,” the Israeli defense chief said.

Austin’s visit came amid a flurry of high-level coordination between US and Israeli officials on plans to block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran has continued to enrich uranium since the United States withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord in 2015, though US officials say they do not believe Iran’s leaders have yet chosen to pursue weaponization.

Prior to meeting with Austin on Thursday, Netanyahu emphasized the United States and Israel’s “common agenda” in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and “maintaining the prosperity and security” of the Middle East.

The US defense secretary said he was “deeply concerned” at the IAEA’s recent discovery of a small number of uranium particles enriched to 83.7% purity at the Fordow nuclear site, just shy of weapons-grade levels. “This is yet another example of Iran’s dangerous nuclear advances,” Austin said.

“We have to be ready for every course of action; all the options [are] on the table,” Gallant said. “We will not allow Iran to possess weapons of mass destruction.”

The meeting also came on the heels of an unrelenting spate of violent incidents between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. 

Earlier on Thursday, Israeli special operations forces killed three men reportedly affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in a gun battle near Jenin on Thursday, less than two days after six Palestinians were killed and 11 wounded in a separate incident.

Israeli security forces have killed more than 70 Palestinians in raids and skirmishes since the start of this year alone, while Palestinians have killed at least 13 Israelis in separate attacks. The fighting has continued despite a de-escalation agreement between Israeli and Palestinian representatives in Aqaba late last month.

The Knesset’s foreign and security affairs committee approved a bill Thursday that would cancel a 2005 law prohibiting Israelis from entering four abandoned West Bank settlements. If approved, the move would allow settlers to rebuild previously abandoned outposts, adding to the already high tensions.  

Last month, two Israeli brothers were shot dead as they drove through the Palestinian village of Huwara, leading to a rampage by mobs of Israeli settlers who burned or vandalized more than 100 Palestinian homes and businesses in the area, leaving one Palestinian dead and dozens injured.

“The United States remains firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric,” Austin said in a thinly veiled reference to the Israeli finance minister's call earlier this month for Huwara to be “wiped out” following the rampage.

The defense chief reiterated US support for Israel’s self defense against terror attacks, but noted that Biden administration officials have been “especially disturbed by violence by [Israeli] settlers against Palestinians.”

The escalation is a matter of particular sensitivity to Arab states including Egypt and Jordan, countries Austin visited during his tour of the Middle East earlier this week and were among the first to sign peace treaties with Israel.

The Pentagon chief reminded Israeli leaders of the commitments their side made with Palestinian officials at Aqaba on Feb. 26, according to the Pentagon readout of today’s meeting. It read that he also “urged immediate steps to de-escalate violence and work towards a just and lasting peace.”

Austin’s visit also came amid Israel’s broadest domestic unrest in decades, as wide swaths of Israeli society have mobilized to oppose Netanyahu’s plan to remodel the country’s judiciary in a move that critics have labelled a coup.

Thousands of IDF reservists threatened not to show up for duty earlier this week should Netanyahu’s gambit move forward, sparking concern in Israel’s top security establishment that the prime minister’s political ambitions could undermine the country’s military preparedness amid climbing tensions with Iran and its network of proxies in the region.

Austin declined to comment publicly on Israeli military preparedness and reiterated that the country’s domestic politics will not get in the way of US military cooperation with its ally. 

“Our commitment to the security of Israel is ironclad,” Austin said. “Our commitment to the security of Israel will not waver; it will not change. It is not negotiable.”

It remains unclear whether the subject of judicial overhaul came up in Austin’s meeting with Netanyahu, but the American defense chief cited the importance of an independent judiciary as a shared pillar of US and Israeli democratic governance in his remarks at the press briefing.

Both sides are working to expand the Abraham Accords agreements whereby the United States has encouraged Arab states to normalize ties with Israel to build a strategic bulwark of economic and defense cooperation that can counterbalance Iran’s influence in the region.

“I greatly appreciate what I just heard from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, on behalf of both himself and President Joe Biden, over the commitment of the US to the safety and security of Israel,” Netanyahu told reporters after the meeting.

“Our conversation focused first and foremost on our joint efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “If anyone in Tehran thinks Iran could advance undisturbed towards nuclear arms, they are mistaken.’’ 

The prime minister also suggested he was pleased with what he described as a recent shift in the US and European stances towards Iran, as Biden administration officials have said in recent months that a return to talks in Vienna over restoring the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — which Israel has opposed — is not on the table.

Austin indicated that the United States continues to seek diplomatic channels with Iran to constrain its nuclear advances.

“We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Austin said, adding, “My job as secretary of defense is to provide the president options if he so desires.”

Following the meeting, Netanyahu departed for Rome for a three-day visit that is expected to include a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“We need — we must — expand and reinforce this stronger position vis-a-vis Iran,” Netanyahu said, adding that he intends to “hold similar talks with other central European leaders in the near future.”

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