By C. Todd Lopez
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL (March 09, 2023) -- During the final stop of a multiday tour of the Middle East, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III visited Tel Aviv to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant.
The senior government and military leaders discussed, among other things, the U.S.-Israel defense partnership, threats posed by Iran in the region, and America's ironclad commitment to Israel's security.
During a briefing following his meeting with the Israeli defense minister, Austin explained what is, perhaps, the No. 1 reason for his visit.
"I wanted to be here to make something very clear," Austin said. "America's commitment to Israel's security is ironclad and it's going to stay that way. As President Biden said on his visit to Israel last year, the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep."
When speaking with the prime minister, Austin also explained his commitment to Israel's right to self-defense and to U.S. security assistance to Israel. Part of that commitment involves the $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the U.S.
"Our historic Memorandum of Understanding with Israel provides $3.3 billion annually for security assistance, as well as additional funding for cooperation on missile defense," Austin said. "I'm proud that President Biden reaffirmed his support for the Memorandum of Understanding and last year's historic Jerusalem Declaration. And that declaration again reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel's security."
As a part of that commitment, the U.S. and Israel in January participated in the Juniper Oak military exercise. The bilateral, live-fire exercise took place in both Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, involved some 6,400 U.S. troops and 1,500 Israeli troops, and was the largest and most significant exercise the two nations have participated in together.
During Juniper Oak, the U.S. and Israel exercised command and control capabilities, air operations in maritime surface warfare, and combat search and rescue abilities. The two nations also worked together to enhance interoperability on electronic attack, suppression of enemy air defenses, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and air interdiction.
"Juniper Oak underscored the depth of our security partnership," Austin said. "It was a key step forward in interoperability, helping us both to better address regional threats. And it showed our ability to swiftly flow in forces and respond to crisis, even while maintaining our commitments in other key theaters."
A big focus of discussion between Austin and Israeli leaders were threats posed by Iran, including Iranian support for terrorism, support of proxy groups, aggression at sea, cyber threats, and proliferation of attack drones and advanced conventional weapons. Also, a concern is Iran's intent to pursue a nuclear weapon -- something Austin said must not happen.
"We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," Austin said. "As President Biden has repeatedly made clear, the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon."
Right now, tensions are high between Israelis and Palestinians, and this is also something Austin discussed with Israeli leaders.
Austin offered condolences to the Prime Minister for the recent victims of terrorism and reaffirmed his commitment to Israel's right to defend itself against such attacks. But Austin also said there was "frank and candid discussion" about de-escalating tensions, especially before Passover and Ramadan.
"The United States also remains firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric," Austin said. "And we're especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians. So, we'll continue to oppose actions that could push a two-state solution further out of reach. And we'll work to build on the February 26th agreement in Jordan, including the commitment by the parties to de-escalate on the ground and to prevent further violence and to fully implement the terms of the Aqaba Communique."
Prior to his visit to Israel, Austin visited Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. In all four locations, the secretary emphasized the U.S. commitment to the Middle East and to increased security cooperation partnerships.