The top U.S. military officer pledged further military cooperation with Israel Sunday in meetings with the country's leaders, amid increasing worries about Iranian involvement in the Syria conflict.
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Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and they acknowledged that while the U.S. and Israel differ on the Iran nuclear agreement, the two nations must also deal with malign Iranian activities in the region. The seven-nation nuclear pact formally took effect Sunday, and could eventually provide Iran relief from international sanctions in exchange for constraining its nuclear program.
Netanyahu has condemned the deal as empowering Tehran to spread unrest in the Mideast while leaving the country capable of making an atomic bomb. Iran, meanwhile, has sent hundreds of troops to Syria, joining allied Hezbollah fighters and Russian airstrikes in an offensive to wrest key areas from rebels fighting the Syrian government.
Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Dunford, said the meeting at Netanyahu's residence included discussions about Islamic State extremists, Iranian influence and Iran's ties to Hezbollah.
"There's no shortage of challenges, and I think that there's common agreement that we have to stop this aggression in the region, but specifically the aggression that is aimed at Israel," Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting. "There's a lot to talk about — how to bolster our common security interests and Israel's ability to defend itself, by itself, against these and other threats."
Dunford, who took over as chairman on October 1, is on his first overseas trip as chairman. He said he made Israel his first stop, reflecting the important relationship the U.S. has with the Israelis.
"I'm confident that the solution to those challenges is our cooperation and that's what I'm committed to, and that's why I'm here today," Dunford said as the meeting with Netanyahu started.
During his two days in Israel, Dunford met with Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the commander-in-chief of the Israel Defense Forces at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, and with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and other military leaders.
During the meeting with Yaalon, the two men briefly mentioned the expected discussions about a military aid package for Israel. Hicks said the subject came up "in passing" and that additional talks are forthcoming.
The discussions had been sidelined by the disagreement over the Iran deal. But in August, President Barack Obama indicated that conversations would "move rapidly" and would include next-generation missile defense programs.
Dunford's visit to Israel coincided with the recent spike in violence around the country, including a bold attack at a southern bus station Sunday when an Arab armed with a gun and knife opened fire, killing an Israeli soldier and wounding 11 others. The attacker was shot and killed, as was an Eritrean national misidentified as an assailant.
Israel tightened security around the country, including in Jerusalem where Dunford was staying and traveling to meetings.
Over the past month, nine Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. In that time, 41 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 20 labeled by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops.
The violence has been fueled in part by Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to expand its presence at a major Muslim-run shrine in Jerusalem. Israel denies that claim.