The U.S. and Israel began their biggest joint air and missile defense exercise today amid rising tensions with Iran and as American presidential candidates prepare for a foreign-policy debate that is likely to focus on the region.
“Austere Challenge 12 is the largest aerial defense exercise to take place between the two militaries,” the Israeli army said overnight in an e-mailed statement. The U.K. and Germany will also participate in the three-week drill, involving as many as 3,500 U.S. personnel in the region along with 1,000 members of the Israel Defense Forces, according to the Pentagon.
Although the Israeli military said that “planning for the exercise began over two years ago and is not a response to specific events in the region,” it takes place amid growing concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli leaders accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and have said that all options, including a military strike, are justified to counter what they describe as an existential threat.
Iranian officials say their nuclear program is intended only for civilian purposes and that they will retaliate to any Israeli military action.
President Barack Obama’s administration has openly disagreed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran’s progress toward the capability to produce a nuclear weapon and the timing of any military strikes to stop a program.
“Israel has to make its own decisions how to protect its national security, and it will choose to do what it chooses to do,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration, in an interview today on Israel’s Army Radio. Israel should take into account its historic security partnership with the U.S., Flournoy said, adding that she hopes neither country will feel it has to act unilaterally on the issue.
The U.S.-Israel exercise starts a day before the third and final debate between Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, Florida, which will focus on foreign policy issues. Romney accused Obama of wanting to “put daylight” between the U.S. and Israel in their previous debate on Oct. 16.
“It is never helpful to the U.S.-Israel relationship when the relationship becomes a subject of discussion in either of our election campaigns,” Flournoy told Army Radio. Israeli elections are scheduled for Jan. 22.
Austere Challenge 12, which was postponed from earlier this year, follows a U.S.-led exercise completed last month that involved more than 30 nations in the largest mine-clearing demonstration in the Middle East. Iranian officials have periodically threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil is shipped daily.
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