WASHINGTON - Bipartisan U.S. lawmakers from both houses of Congress on Thursday introduced legislation aimed at bolstering defense cooperation between Israel and several Arab states with the Pentagon's explicit involvement, in order to thwart threats from Iran and its proxies.
The “Deterring Enemy Forces and Enabling National Defenses Act of 2022" – or the “DEFEND Act of 2022,” introduced by Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate Abraham Accords Caucuses, states that the Pentagon would be required to submit a strategy for an integrated air and missile defense system within 180 days.
The defenses would be aimed at protecting the relevant countries from "cruise and ballistic missiles, manned and unmanned aerial systems, and rocket attacks from Iran, and for other purposes." The countries named in the bill include Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, as well as the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.
The Senate bill was introduced by Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Cory Booker alongside Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and James Lankford. The House bill, meanwhile, was introduced by Democratic Reps. Brad Schneider, David Trone and Jimmy Panetta alongside Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Ann Wagner and Don Bacon.
“Iran is on the one-yard line in their pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and is threatening our allies in the region in numerous other ways. Strengthening our allies by building unity and enhancing shared security capabilities is critical to confronting Iranian threats to the region,” said Schneider. “U.S. leadership, in developing integrated air and missile defense, would provide essential security, stability, and a unified defense to the region," he continued," adding that the bill is a "prime example of the important, bipartisan, bicameral work that Congress must prioritize in our pursuit of regional peace and stability.”
“Iran has proven time and time again that they will stop at nothing to threaten the safety and security of Israel and our allies in the Middle East working together to achieve peace in the region,” said Rodgers. “That progress towards a more hopeful future cannot continue unless the United States takes a stand against Iran’s escalating acts of aggression," she continued, adding that the bill "sends a clear message that our country is prepared to do what it takes to help our allies protect themselves, save lives, and preserve the peace we’ve worked so hard to achieve.”
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The bill is the most prominent piece of legislation to date aimed at building upon the normalization pacts between Israel and Arab nations. Of the nine Arab countries mentioned in the bill, two have decades-long peace treaties with Israel, while two others were among the countries to normalize ties. Israel and Bahrain signed a historic formalization of security ties in February, while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited the United Arab Emirates on Thursday to conduct his second meeting with President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, days after Israel signed a free trade deal with the UAE – its first such agreement with an Arab country.
Talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, meanwhile, have intensified over recent weeks ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's anticipated visit. The United States has been discussing the establishment of a regional security architecture focusing on improving defenses against Iranian missiles and drones, primarily between Israel, the Saudis and the UAE. Furthermore, the IDF will soon assign a permanent liaison officer from the Israel Navy to the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet located in Bahrain.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the departing commander of the United States Central Command overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East, publicly urged Israel in March to integrate its air and missile defense systems with regional partners. McKenzie's replacement, Lt. Gen Michael Kurilla, has praised the cooperation driven by the Abraham Accords, citing the "significant opportunity" for security cooperation. Kurilla visited Israel last month, meeting Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, and observed the large-scale Chariots of Fire military exercises.