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Pentagon Declares Israel Commitment    04/12 06:04

   U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday declared an "enduring and 
ironclad" American commitment to Israel, reinforcing support at a tense time in 
Israeli politics and amid questions about the Biden administration's efforts to 
revive nuclear negotiations with Israel's archenemy, Iran.

   TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday 
declared an "enduring and ironclad" American commitment to Israel, reinforcing 
support at a tense time in Israeli politics and amid questions about the Biden 
administration's efforts to revive nuclear negotiations with Israel's 
archenemy, Iran.

   Austin's first talks in Israel since he became Pentagon chief in January 
come as the United States seeks to leverage Middle East diplomatic progress 
made by the Trump administration, which brokered a deal normalizing relations 
between Israel and several Arab states.

   By coincidence or not, the defense secretary arrived as Iran reported that 
its underground Natanz nuclear facility lost power just hours after starting up 
new advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium faster. If Israel caused 
the blackout, it would further heighten tensions between the two nations, 
already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. Iran called 
it an act of "nuclear terrorism," but did not immediately blame anyone directly.

   After meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Austin said he 
had reaffirmed "our commitment to Israel is enduring and ironclad." Austin made 
no mention of Iran. Gantz, in his own remarks while standing beside Austin, 
said his country views the United States as a "full partner" against threats, 
"not the least, Iran." Neither official took questions from reporters.

   "The Tehran of today presents a strategic threat to international security, 
the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel," Gantz said in his prepared 
statement. "We will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any 
new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and of the 
United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the 
state of Israel."

   Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security 
Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, said Austin's visit is important in part 
because it is the first by a member of President Joe Biden's Cabinet.

   "They want to show that they did come here with clean hands and they want to 
listen," Guzansky said. "They want to listen to Israel's worries and perhaps 
other partners' worries about the negotiation about Iran."

   Austin is steeped in the finer points of Middle East defense and security 
issues. He served four years as head of U.S. Central Command, capping a 41-year 
Army career that included commanding U.S. forces in Iraq.

   Flying overnight from Washington, Austin arrived in Tel Aviv in the tense 
aftermath of the country's fourth inconclusive election in the past two years. 
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin last week gave embattled Prime Minister 
Benjamin Netanyahu the difficult task of trying to form a new government.

   The key backdrop to Austin's visit is the Israeli government's concern about 
the Biden administration's attempt to work out an arrangement to reenter the 
Iran nuclear deal, which in Israel's view is fatally flawed. Netanyahu has for 
years described Iran as an existential threat to his nation due to Iran's 
alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon and its support for militant groups like 
Lebanon's Hezbollah.

   Netanyahu, leading a state with its own secret nuclear weapons program, has 
accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons to use with its ballistic missiles. 
Iran has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful. Netanyahu has also kept up 
his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, which, if followed, strictly limits 
Tehran's ability to enrich and stockpile uranium, blocking it from being able 
to make a weapon.

   "History has taught us that deals like this, with extremist regimes like 
this, are worth nothing," Netanyahu said last week.

   Last week, an Iranian ship said to be acting as a Revolutionary Guard base 
off the coast of Yemen was struck by an explosion. Iran blamed Israel for the 

   In addition to repeated assurances by Republican and Democratic 
administrations that the United States will endeavor to preserve Israel's 
qualitative military edge over its regional adversaries, Washington for years 
has invested heavily in helping Israel develop missile defense technologies.

   Iron Dome is one of the most-touted successes in Israel missile defense. It 
is a mobile anti-rocket system developed to intercept short-range unguided 
rockets. It has shot down more than 2,000 projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip 
since it was deployed a decade ago. The U.S. Army recently bought two Iron Dome 
batteries at the request of Congress to counter cruise missiles.

   There are questions in Israel about U.S. intentions in shifting military 
priorities away from the Middle East in order to focus more intensively on 
China and Russia as more significant threats to U.S. security.

   Iran is the central source of concern by Israel and by support groups in the 
United States. The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, or JINSA, 
argued in a report last week that such a shift in U.S. priorities would "send 
the wrong" signal as the Biden administration begins indirect talks with Iran 
on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with international powers. President Donald 
Trump withdrew from it in 2018.

   "With reduced defensive capabilities and perceived American retrenchment 
from the region, Tehran and its proxies will only be incentivized to pursue 
even more dangerous actions to destabilize its neighbors," the JINSA report 

   Michael Makovsky, the president of JINSA and a former Pentagon official, 
said Austin's visit is especially timely, given the Biden administration's 
moves toward engaging Iran on its nuclear program.

   "Embracing and strengthening Israel sends a pointed signal to Iran, which 
will only enhance a credible military option against Iran and U.S. leverage in 
the talks," Makovsky said in a statement.

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