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Iran Overshadows Discussions as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Dempsey Makes First Official Visit to Israel

January 24, 2012

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, USA, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Israel last week where he met with IDF Chief of Staff and other officials.

Dempsey’s meetings with Gantz reportedly were to discuss U.S.-Israel military relations, the new U.S. defense strategy, budgetary and economic issues, and regional security challenges. Nevertheless, it was assumed by nearly every commentator and analyst that the Iran issue loomed large over every meeting.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, USA, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, IDF Chief of Staff

The postponement of the largest ever U.S.-Israel joint exercise, Austere Challenge 12, was a key topic of conversation. A Pentagon spokesperson said the exercise, originally scheduled for spring, would be carried out later in the year. There have been competing stories in the media over why the exercise was postponed. They include everything from Israel simply not being ready to host such a large endeavor to U.S. concerns that the exercise might send the wrong message about Iran just as sanctions appear to be working.

Dempsey also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres.

Netanyahu, who has been warning about the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program for more than a decade, told Dempsey the United States should ratchet up sanctions to target Iran’s central bank and oil exports, the Israeli news site YNet reported. It quoted the prime minister as saying such measures must be imposed immediately.

It was also reported, without attribution, that Israeli leaders told Dempsey during the visit that it will give Washington 12 hours notice before launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Last week, U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, was quoted as saying that the Obama administration was ready to move beyond sanctions if Iran’s suspected atomic weapons ambitions were not curbed. According to Reuters, Dempsey has said he was not sure if Israel would give him advance warning if it decided to strike Iran.

The Associated Press reported that at the start of a meeting with Barak, himself a former IDF chief of staff, Dempsey said the U.S. and Israel “have many interests in common in the region in this very dynamic time, and the more we can continue to engage each other, the better off we’ll all be.” In comments released by his office, Barak replied, “There is never a dull moment, that I can promise you.”

“Each reinforced the deep and special relationship shared by Israel and the U.S.,” said Dempsey’s spokesman, Marine Col. David Lapan said. “These discussions also served to advance a common understanding of the regional security environment.”

In an interview published Friday in the Israeli daily Maariv, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the recently retired Israeli military intelligence chief, said the U.S. and Israel now agree that Iran is deliberately working slowly toward nuclear weapons, to minimize international diplomatic pressure and sanctions.

Gen. Yadlin, who recently lectured at the U.S. Naval Academy as part of JINSA’s Military Academies Lecture Series, claimed that the U.S. and Israel differ about what would be considered unacceptable Iranian behavior that would require a military strike. “While Israel defines the red line as Iran’s ability and potential for a breakthrough, the Americans draw the red line a lot farther away,” he said.

The former chief intel officer, who retired in late 2010, said the Iranian nuclear program was Israel’s “only existential threat,” noting that in addition to the possibility of a nuclear attack from Iran, its possession of nuclear weapons would spark a regional arms race. “In that situation, in a nuclear neighborhood, the chance grows that a nuclear weapon could slip into the hands of terrorists,” Yadlin said.

During a visit to Jerusalem, Dempsey toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum and placed a wreath in honor of the six million Holocaust victims. In brief remarks after the tour, Dempsey noted the significance of the date – 70 years to the day of the infamous Wannsee Conference held in that Berlin suburb on January 20, 1942. It was at that meeting that senior officials of the Nazi regime discussed their “Final solution to the Jewish problem.”

The IDF Spokesperson unit posted a video of Gen. Dempsey being received by Lt. Gen. Gantz and brief clips of the Joint Chiefs Chairman’s time in Israel.

James Colbert is Policy Director at JINSA and is the Deputy Editor of JINSA’s semiannual scholarly journal, The Journal of International Security Affairs.

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