Israeli security officials on Saturday tried to downplay the Pentagon's decision to significantly scale back its participation in a joint military exercise with Israel next month, but some government officials said the decision came as a response to the growing tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office and the Obama administration.
"This is the Obama administration's response to the dinner party Netanyahu held in (Mitt) Romney's honor," a senior member of the political-security cabinet told Ynet, while another official said the Pentagon's decision "isn’t boosting deterrence and is not making the Iranians sweat.
Patriot battery during previous drill in 2009 (Photo: EPA)
"Regardless of the exercise, the relations between Israel and the US have soured," another minister said, while another added cynically that "our relationship has never been better.
"The US elections are in two months, and there is no doubt that President Barack Obama, if he is reelected, will make Netanyahu pay for his behavior," said the security cabinet member. "It will not pass quietly."
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Other officials in Jerusalem said Washington is trying to send a message that Israel will not drag it into war, certainly not before the elections. The Americans were enraged by Israel's repeated threats to launch a solo military attack on Iran's nuclear sites, and top US General Martin Dempsey's recent statement that he does not "want to be complicit" if Israel chooses to attack was carefully worded.
Officials said that while Jerusalem has received the message, the Americans' conduct is leading Iran to believe that it is safe at least until the US elections.
"This is why the Iranians are issuing threatening statements against the US," one official argued. "Washington's hesitant policy is making the Iranians feel freer to move ahead with the nuclear program. This is not how you create deterrence to avoid a military operation."
The joint military drill is scheduled to begin in September and conclude in mid-November. "Israel has no idea why the Americans decided to reduce the number of troops it will send to the drill," a security official said. "The ties between the US and Israeli armies are strong, and we would have known if the reduction had something to do with any tensions between Jerusalem and Washington."
Another security official also rejected the notion that the Pentagon's decision to scale back its participation in the military exercise was meant as a message to Israel: "There are various reasons for decision, but they have nothing to do with the mounting tensions between Jerusalem and Washington. The drill will still be the largest these armies have ever conducted."
According to Time Magazine, the US slashed the number of American troops who were slated to take part in the drill by more than 60%. Instead of the approximately 5,000 troops originally assigned to "Austere Challenge 12," as the exercise is dubbed, the Pentagon will send only 1,500 servicemen and perhaps as few as 1,200.
The number and the potency of missile interception systems that were to be used in the maneuvers were also reduced. Patriot anti-missile systems will arrive in Israel as planned, the crews that can operate them will not. Instead of two Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense warships, only one will be deployed – and even that is uncertain, Time said, citing officials in both the US and Israeli militaries.