Israel and the United States have postponed until the second half of the year a massive joint defense exercise scheduled for April. Although it was not mentioned explicitly, it is believed that the Obama administration's desire to defuse tension with Iran was behind the decision.
The announcement of the postponement was to have been issued jointly in Washington and Jerusalem, but Israel Radio reported the news on Sunday afternoon - before it was announced in the United States - after it was leaked to the government broadcaster.
In related news, Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon on Sunday voiced disappointment in the Obama administration, saying "election-year considerations" lay behind its caution over tough Iran sanctions sought by U.S. legislators.
While Washington has been talking tougher about Iran's nuclear work and threat to block oil export routes out of the Gulf if hit with harsher sanctions, new U.S. measures adopted on December 31 gave President Barak Obama leeway on the scope of penalties on the Iranian central bank and on Iran's oil exports.
Ya'alon contrasted the administration's posture to that of France and Britain, which he said "are taking a very firm stand and understand that sanctions must be imposed immediately."
"In the United States, the Senate passed a resolution by a majority of 100-to-one to impose these sanctions, and in the U.S. administration there is hesitation for fear of oil prices rising this year, out of election-year considerations," Ya'alon told Israel Radio. "In that regard, this is certainly a disappointment, for now."
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, also speaking to Israel Radio on Sunday, distanced himself from the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist last week that Tehran blamed on agents of Israel and the United States.
"I don't know this subject and I would not want to discuss it at all," Meridor said. His remarks ended the government's blanket silence on the January 11 car bombing in the Iranian capital that killed Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan.
International news outlets were quick to connect the delay of the military drill to disagreement between the United States and Israel on how to respond to Iran's nuclear program, especially over the possibility of an Israeli strike on that country's nuclear installations.
On Saturday the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States is very concerned that Israel could attack Iran, and has relayed strongly worded messages to Israel over the past few weeks to warn Jerusalem of the possible consequences of such a move.
Israeli defense officials insisted on Sunday that the decision to postpone the drill, codenamed Austere Challenge 12, was fully coordinated between Washington and Jerusalem and has nothing to do with disputes over Iran.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Thursday for talks with his counterpart, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and other senior defense officials. Dempsey is expected to reiterate U.S. opposition to a wildcat Israeli strike on Iran at this time.
It must be noted, however, that putting off the joint exercises until the second half of the year actually fits into a scenario that has Israel attacking Iran in that time framework. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said on a number of recent occasions, including in a November interview to CNN, that the window during which an effective strike against Iran's nuclear facilities is possible will close in about one year. A massive U.S. military presence in Israel, especially advanced antimissile air defenses, would be very useful in protecting Israel in the event of an Iranian counterattack.
Austere Challenge 12 is scheduled to be the largest joint drill by Israeli and U.S. forces in history, involving thousands of American troops. For the past several years Israel and the United States have held joint drills as part of the Juniper Cobra exercise, conducted every year or two and focusing mainly on antimissile and antirocket defense.
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