April 9, 2021 | Insight

Austin Makes First Trip to Israel as Defense Secretary

April 9, 2021 | Insight

Austin Makes First Trip to Israel as Defense Secretary

The Pentagon announced Thursday that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will visit Israel next week. Austin likely wants to reassure Israel as the White House seeks to re-enter the deeply flawed Iran nuclear agreement – but he should also use the visit to further strengthen the U.S.-Israel bilateral security partnership.

The trip represents Austin’s first to the Middle East since becoming defense secretary, and it is notable that Israel will be the only country he visits in the region. Austin is set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz on a trip that also includes visits to Germany, NATO’s Belgium headquarters, and the United Kingdom.

The Pentagon’s press release emphasized that the visit to Israel will enable Austin “to continue close consultations on shared priorities, and reaffirm the enduring U.S. commitment to the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership and Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge.”

More directly, Austin’s primary goal is almost certainly to assure Jerusalem that the Biden administration stands with Israel as Washington engages in negotiations regarding the Iran nuclear agreement.

Some of the feedback from his Israeli interlocutors will likely be, shall we say, candid.

Israel, after all, understandably views the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat. The Islamic Republic of Iran, a regime with the well-earned reputation as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, has long pursued a nuclear weapons capability. Despite Tehran’s unwillingness to come clean on the previous military dimensions of its nuclear program, the Biden administration is moving to rejoin the deeply flawed Iran nuclear agreement.

The Biden administration seems undeterred by the deal’s weak inspection regime, failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile program, and sunset clauses. To convince Tehran to stop its nuclear blackmail, the White House seems prepared to grant sanctions relief – providing billions of dollars that the Islamic Republic will once again use to arm its proxies so they can more effectively kill Americans and our allies.

In a likely preview of his comments to Austin, Netanyahu did not mince words at the Yad Vashem memorial museum on Holocaust Remembrance Day this week. “I say to our closest friends too: A deal with Iran that threatens us with annihilation will not obligate us,” Netanyahu declared. “Only one thing will obligate us: to prevent those who wish to destroy us from carrying out their plans.”

In addition to Iran’s nuclear program, Austin is likely to hear serious concern about Hezbollah’s growing arsenal of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in Lebanon. That arsenal would permit Tehran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon to strike with tremendous accuracy any target in Israel. The ability of PGMs to maneuver could permit some to evade interception and cause mass casualties. Austin will likely hear that a failure to address the growing PGM threat may force Israel to take preemptive action in Lebanon.

Other topics of discussion during Austin’s visit may include Iran’s activities in Syria, Israel’s concerns related to the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, the forward prepositioning of U.S. ammunition and supplies in Israel, and growing challenges in the maritime domain.

For his part, Austin may emphasize the importance of ensuring shared military technology is not stolen by the People’s Republic of China.

In addition to these concerns and challenges, there are also some opportunities.

The historic diplomatic successes associated with the Abraham Accords offer the United States and Israel an opportunity to further reduce hostility toward Israel from some Arab neighbors, mitigate Israel’s regional isolation, and begin to build a more unified and militarily capable American-Israeli-Arab coalition to counter Iranian aggression.

The decision to move Israel from the U.S. European Command area of responsibility to that of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) provides an opportunity to build that coalition more effectively. As part of Israel’s transition to CENTCOM, Austin should consider working with the United Arab Emirates to invite the Israel Defense Forces to participate in the next Iron Union Exercise in the United Arab Emirates. That would strengthen combined military readiness and send a powerful deterrent message to Tehran.

Meanwhile, Israel is moving to use American foreign military financing and other resources to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. fighter aircraft, air refuelers, and helicopters. Those purchases will strengthen the American defense innovation base, improve Israel’s ability to defend itself, and enable the two militaries to operate together more effectively.

But defense dollars in both countries are finite, even as both countries confront growing threats and intense military-technology competitions with adversaries. That means the United States and Israel must work together more effectively to strengthen military research and development cooperation. Doing so would help make the most out of every defense dollar and help the United States field needed capabilities more quickly.

Section 1299M of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act authorizes Austin to  “stand up the U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group without delay.” He owed a report on the working group to Congress on March 15.

Standing up that working group would further demonstrate America’s commitment to Israel and would help ensure that warfighters in both counties never confront a better-armed foe.

Both the United States and Israel face grave and growing threats in the Middle East. Deterring and defeating those threats will require the two countries to make their incredibly strong security partnership even stronger.

Hopefully, Austin’s visit will do just that.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from Bradley and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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