The U.S. military delegation that spent three days in Israel this week was unusual in its size. The IDF was accustomed to smaller coordination meetings, with EUCOM (European Command of the U.S. military). But since the ties with Israel were transferred to CENTCOM (Central Command) last September, relations have become close and more intensive.
The CENTCOM delegation consisted of 35 officers, eight of them with the rank of general or admiral. The character of the discussions has also changed, according to the IDF General Staff. The work with EUCOM, whose regular arena of activity was remote from Israel, focused on joint defense systems. Now everything is on the table, including intelligence cooperation and American logistical aid to Israel in an emergency.
The joint deployment for what are termed strategic challenges in the Middle East focused on a scenario similar to the one at the center of the IDF exercise in the “month of war” in May: escalation with Hezbollah on the northern border that slides into other arenas and also involves Iran indirectly. Israel does not expect the United States to launch attacks for it in Beirut or in the Lebanese Beka’a, and the United States certainly has no such intention. But there is a wide field here for cooperative efforts: opening of emergency depots, sharing intelligence information, establishment of a regional air defense system (which the U.S. wants to upgrade through a broader initiative, which might be presented during President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel next month).
Both the publicity and the joint aerial training are intended also to project a regional force, which will be taken note of in Tehran and also in friendly Arab states. An Israeli attack on nuclear sites is in any case not currently on the agenda. But in the eyes of the Israelis and of the Americans, importance lies in an in-depth strategic dialogue, encompassing the coordination of expectations and the drawing up of protocols for joint work.
In the meantime, the severity of the warnings about Iranian efforts to perpetrate terrorist revenge attacks against Israelis in Turkey appears to have been mitigated. From the little that was made public, it looks as though the intelligence services of Israel and Turkey succeeded in thwarting a number of plans for attacks in Istanbul. Thousands of Israeli tourists left Turkey this week, and fewer targets remained for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their henchmen.
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The high alert was exploited to expedite a process which had already begun in any case: Israeli-Turkish reconciliation. This is happening after a crisis lasting more than a decade, which began with public criticism by President Erdogan of IDF activity in the Gaza Strip, and reached a peak in the episode of the Mavi Marmara, a ship in the Gaza flotilla, in 2010. Lapid, in his last visit abroad as foreign minister, arrived in Ankara on Thursday.
The day before, another reconciled guest visited the Turkish capital: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He had been boycotted in Turkey since dispatching assassins there to murder the Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi four years ago. The transformations in the Middle East are occurring with high frequency.
Lapid is not expected to deviate from the active, initiating and at times overly noisy line that Bennett pursued regarding Iran. Tehran itself has also been very active in recent months, in offensive actions against its regional rivals. The view in the IDF is that these exchanges, which include Iranian drone attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia, will continue in the near future. The crucial date which the region’s leaders are fixated is this November, when the U.S. midterm Congressional elections will take place. The polls foresee a Democratic debacle, particularly in light of the economic crisis, and the deployment for the elections is making it hard for the Biden administration to spearhead foreign policy initiatives. That’s one of the key reasons that the negotiations on the renewal of the nuclear accord are stuck – at the moment there are doubts whether there will be a breakthrough before the end of the year.
At this time, Iran is establishing itself as a nuclear “threshold state.” Senior U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the special representative to Iran, Robert Malley, are trying to pass the ball into the Iranian court. Tehran, they maintain, should show restraint at the continued listing of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization under American sanctions, and move ahead to sign a new agreement nonetheless. The Iranian hesitation stems in part also from the precedent set by former U.S. President Donald Trump. If a Republican president withdrew once from the agreement (in 2018), what will prevent him (or another Republican) from doing so again in 2025, if the Republicans return to the White House? Tehran is seeking guarantees for the day after Biden and is concerned that foreign firms will not invest in the country, because of the precedent set by Trump.
In the meantime, the New York Times reported that Israel and the United States are monitoring an Iranian effort to dig a series of tunnels deep in the mountains south of the nuclear site at Natanz, in what was described as the greatest attempt to protect its nuclear facilities. The new site, which was mentioned in a speech by Gantz last month, is being dug in a way similar to the Fordow facility. The thickness of the ground is meant to provide protection against an Israeli bombing raid, in the absence of munitions capable of hitting it.
However, U.S. bunker busters are apparently capable of penetrating the site. Sources in the Biden administration told the Times that the project is years away from completion and that the site is intended to replace centrifuges that were destroyed in April 2020, in a sabotage action attributed to Israel.