Austin to visit Israel next week as tensions in West Bank intensify

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a statement after their meeting in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. Photo:

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is expected to arrive in Israel next Wednesday for a two-day visit, two Israeli and U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: Austin will arrive as the U.S. continues its efforts to de-escalate tensions in the occupied West Bank to avoid further violence during the historically sensitive period around the holy month of Ramadan and Passover.

  • Austin’s visit will also take place against the backdrop of growing concerns in Israel and Washington over the significant advance in Iran's nuclear program.
  • A top U.S. defense official said on Tuesday that Iran will need only 12 days to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium to build one nuclear bomb.

The big picture: Austin will be the fourth senior Biden administration official to visit Israel since the current right-wing government was sworn in two months ago.

  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA director Bill Burns and Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Jerusalem in recent weeks.
  • Last month, the Israeli military and the U.S. Central Command conducted the biggest-ever joint military exercise, which included training for a military strike against Iran.

Driving the news: Last Friday, Austin spoke to his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant and encouraged the de-escalation of tensions in the occupied West Bank, following an Israeli military raid in Nablus that resulted in civilian casualties, the Pentagon said in a statement.

  • Gallant said in a statement that he told Austin the Nablus operation was needed to stop a planned attack against Israelis and said the two discussed joint efforts to calm down tensions in the West Bank.
  • Gallant also said he told Austin that Israel is concerned about the ongoing uranium enrichment by Iran and stressed Israel is committed to preventing Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons capability.
  • While in Israel, Austin is expected to meet with Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi. He will also meet Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog.

Between the lines: Austin’s visit is also meant to signal U.S. support for Gallant, who the Biden administration sees as a reliable interlocutor the U.S. can work with, a U.S. official said.

  • The Pentagon declined to comment on the trip.

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