J’lem, Washington discuss tighter defense ties in face of nuke threat

We’re creating a regional security architecture, Gantz says

 Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen meeting with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (photo credit: Hal Williams)
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen meeting with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
(photo credit: Hal Williams)

Israel and the United States are looking to tighten security cooperation in light of the increasing Iranian threat, as Tehran ramps up its nuclear program.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz talked about Iran with US. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan when the two men met on the sidelines of the Aspen Security Forum on Friday.

“The discussion focused on deepening defense cooperation between Israel and the US in face of the Iranian threat.”

Israels Defense Ministry

“The discussion focused on deepening defense cooperation between Israel and the US in face of the Iranian threat,” the Defense Ministry said, adding that in addition, they talked about “ways to strengthen regional cooperation.”

US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia earlier this month was also a topic of conversation. During that trip, the US looked to advance regional unity, particularly with the Gulf states, against Iranian aggression.  

The US on that trip issued the Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration in which it reaffirmed its commitment “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and promised that “Israel had a right to defend itself by itself.”

 Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen meeting with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (credit: Hal Williams) Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen meeting with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (credit: Hal Williams)

Biden told Israel’s Channel 12 during the trip that his country would use force against Iran as a last resort.

Gantz at the Aspen Forum on Thursday similarly said that war with Iran was the least desired option, but that Israel was prepared for such a scenario and that it hoped it would have US support in that instance.

“Should we jump to a war at the first opportunity we have? No,” Gantz said, doing a public interview by The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief Jeffry Goldberg. The interview focuses on regional issues, including the Abraham Accords and Iran.

Goldberg had asked him if Israel was “prepared to confront Iran alone.”

“Should we be able to conduct military operations to prevent it [a nuclear Iran] if needed, the answer is ‘yes.’ Are we building the ability [for war]? Yes. Should we use it as a last case? Yes – and I hope that we will get US support,” the defense minister said.

When it came to halting a nuclear Iran, the world and the region should stop it, Gantz said.

“We as the Israeli government, as leaders of the Jewish country, have a historical responsibility to make sure that this [a nuclear] doesn’t happen,” he said.

Israel is uniquely threatened by Iran, but the larger region has also felt the impact of that danger, Gantz said, adding that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were suffering more than Israel from Tehran’s actions.

The Abraham Accords

Gantz reflected on the way that the Abraham Accords, under whose rubric Israeli normalized ties with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, had also allowed for a united front on many issues including against the Islamic Republic.

“The Abraham Accords enables us to expand our relations [with regional partners]  in security aspects, in business to business [frameworks], organizations to organizations, and people to people,” he said. “And of course, we are creating a regional architecture for defense.”

There is a united front on maintaining freedom of navigation and trade as well as on aerial and cyber defense, the defense minister said.

“Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel has participated in hundreds of meetings and discussions with regional partners and participated in at least 10 multinational exercises.”

The United States shifting Israel into its regional CENTCOM group also helped strengthen a strategic umbrella under which the Jewish state can operate, Gantz said.

In Aspen, Bahrain’s Undersecretary of Political Affairs Sheikh Abdulla bin Ahmed bin Abdulla Al Khalifa declined to directly answer a question about whether his country might participate in preemptive military action against Iran’s nuclear program.

But when asked whether it would be fair to interpret his answer as “an ambiguous maybe,” he quipped: “Fair enough.”

Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters, which oversees American naval operations in the Middle East.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Gantz in his conversation with Goldberg also reflected briefly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The defense minister recalled that Israel’s new relationships in the region were the direct result of the decision it took to suspend plans to apply sovereignty to West Bank settlements.

He touted his position early on against such annexation, and has been a proponent of sovereignty only in the context of negotiations.

“I am very happy that I blocked the threat of annexation of Judea and Samaria. If we were to have annexed those areas I don’t think we could have moved forward with the Abraham Accords,” Gantz said.

The accords symbolize the acceptance of Israel as part of the Middle East, he explained. Along with Israel’s new relationships in the region, it can be used “to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and promote confidence-building measures,” he said, which would include financial investments by Gulf states in the PA.

Gantz related that he has met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas three times and is the official in the Israeli government responsible for confidence-building measures to help improve day-to-day life for the Palestinians.

There have been 30 such measures, he said, not elaborating on what they are.

“From a Jewish, Zionist and democratic perspective, I would like to see a better future between us and the Palestinians – and that includes separating from the Palestinians,” Gantz said.

He explained that down the road, there had to be a “permanent arrangement between the Palestinians and us – and everyone can use his own words for that description.”

The defense minister did not speak of two states like Prime Minister Yair Lapid has done. Instead, he spoke of “a two-entity situation” a phrase he has used in the past, including at the Munich Security Conference.

When speaking about the November elections in Israel, Gantz spoke of himself in a way that made it clear that he viewed himself as a contender for the job of prime minister, even though polls at present have him behind Lapid and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“My plan is to build a wide unity government with all segments of Israeli society, to exclude the extreme edges,” he said.

“Increasing unity within Israeli society is part of the national resilience,” he said.

“I exclude no one – and the difference between me and others is that no one excludes me.”

Reuters contributed to this report