The arrival on Thursday of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Israel is the latest in a succession of high-level American visits to the Jewish state, and the fact that these visits are occurring just as Tehran approaches military-grade uranium enrichment is no coincidence.
As far as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is concerned, his meeting with Austin focused squarely on the Islamic Republic and the threat it poses.
Both Gallant and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Austin on Thursday.
“I have just finished an important and comprehensive meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. I very much appreciated his remarks on behalf of President [Joe] Biden, as well as the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, also on behalf of the president. Our conversation focused primarily on our joint efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” said Netanyahu.
“If anyone in Tehran thinks that Iran can make unhindered progress towards nuclear weapons, they are mistaken,” he added. “I discern a change in the approach to Iran in recent months, both in the U.S. and in the countries of Western Europe, and in the West in general.”
Gallant said during his meeting with Austin that Israel and the U.S. are in a critical period, and that important decisions will have to be taken soon.
The defense minister outlined Iranian offensive activities for Austin, and the Islamic Republican Guard Corps’ attempts to entrench itself in Syria and Lebanon.
The two men also discussed ways to stabilize Judea and Samaria, with Gallant saying that Israel has an interest in quiet and in improving the welfare of Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, but stressing that this would not occur at the expense of the security of Israelis.
The genius of democracy
During the meeting, Austin stressed that ties between Israel and the U.S. go beyond interests and extend to common values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. He praised the genius of Israeli democracy for being based on strong foundations, checks and balances, and an independent judicial system, and reiterated Biden’s call for consensus to be built regarding any changes to that democracy.
On March 3, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, was in Israel for a key meeting with Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Gallant and the IDF military attaché in Washington, Maj. Gen. Hidai Zilberman.
During Milley’s visit, Gallant highlighted the importance of international cooperation in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and expressed his appreciation for American partnership and commitment to the security of the State of Israel.
But beyond the public statements, more is likely going on behind the scenes.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that one of the objectives of the visits is to try to ensure that Israel will not surprise the U.S. with an uncoordinated strike on Iran.
“The Americans have an issue in believing Netanyahu. One of the reasons they are arriving is to see what Israel is doing,” said Gilboa.
Noting that Austin is only the third Pentagon chief to be a former general and not a career civilian politician (the other two being Jim Mattis and George Marshall), Gilboa said that Austin’s military background is a positive, since he and Milley “speak the same language as the one spoken by the Israeli defense establishment. Hence, they are also here to see what Israel needs and requires, and to discuss timetables.”
Austin’s visit was originally planned for two days and has since been shortened to just a few hours, taking place in part in an Israel Aerospace Industries hangar near Ben-Gurion Airport.
The crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations
Gilboa said the visit also reflects the depth of the current crisis gripping American-Israeli relations.
“Despite the crisis, the Americans exempt defense from all other issues, and this visit is a reflection of that. Finance Minister [Bezalel] Smotrich is supposed to fly to the U.S. next week, but no one will meet with him there and Jewish organizations are boycotting him. If he insists on going, he will be met by protests,” said Gilboa. “That’s a bad sign for U.S.-Israeli relations.”
With Smotrich being blackballed by the U.S. government and Netanyahu receiving a warning in the form of a lack of any invitation to the White House, the military channel remains the only stable bilateral connection available at this time, Gilboa argued.
“Netanyahu should have been in the White House now to coordinate future steps on Iran. But the U.S. will not invite him so long as the judicial reform crisis is in place. Austin’s visit could serve as a replacement for that,” he assessed.
Austin’s meeting with Gallant also signals that while the Israeli defense minister is viewed positively in Washington, Smotrich certainly is not.
The defense communications channel between the two countries also remained stable during the years of the Obama administration, which also saw turbulent ties between Washington and Jerusalem.
“Defense and intelligence are seen by the Americans as different areas from all others. Of course, the Iranian issue is the critical one to discuss. I believe that Israel must coordinate with the U.S. and receive its support if it launches a military option against Iran,” said Gilboa.
On the bright side, Israel and the U.S. view the severity of Iran’s latest steps through a similar perspective, the professor said.
Austin also wanted to hear Israeli assessments regarding the Palestinian arena, due to Washington’s great concern over the possible outbreak of a third intifada.
“He wanted to know what Gallant and Netanyahu think about the Palestinian situation,” said Gilboa.
With these issues being as urgent as they are, talk of expanding the Abraham Accords will be relegated to the sidelines, Gilboa added.