(JNS) Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel on Monday, where he is expected to pressure Jerusalem to scale back the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
He met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv in the afternoon after an earlier meeting with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Austin in the Jewish state, where they participated in a team meeting that included Austin's chief of staff Kelly Magsamen and Deputy US Ambassador to Israel Stephanie Hallet.
Representing the Israeli side were Gallant, National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and the military secretary to the prime minister, Maj. Gen. Avi Gil.
Austin was also scheduled to attend a meeting of the War Cabinet, which includes Netanyahu, Gallant and Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Gantz.
Austin and Netanyahu made statements at the start of the extended meeting with the War Cabinet, with the premier welcoming the delegation, saying that "we are fighting a war of civilization against barbarism."
Netanyahu continued, "I can say that when we talked, I mentioned again Israel's commitment to achieving a complete victory against Hamas. We think that this is not only our war, but in many ways also your war, because you are leading the forces of civilization in the world."
Austin reiterated the Biden administration's position that "our commitment to Israel is unquestionable."
"I know that Israel is a small and close-knit country, and I know that all the citizens of Israel have been affected by the enormous evil committed by Hamas. I am here to mourn with you for the pure souls that were taken from you on the 7th of October, and I am also here to stand by the families of those who are still in Gaza, including US citizens," Austin said.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Dec. 18, 2023. (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO)
"I'm also here to discuss how we can best support Israel on a path to lasting security, and that means tackling urgent needs first. We must get more humanitarian assistance in to the nearly two million displaced people in Gaza and we must distribute that aid better," he added.
The New York Times, citing US officials, reported that the Pentagon chief was to discuss with his Israeli counterparts a transition to the next phase of the war, which the Americans envision as "smaller groups of elite forces that would move in and out of population centers in Gaza, conducting more precise, intelligence-driven missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels."
Jerusalem has made it clear, however, that the current aerial, naval and ground campaign in Gaza could take several more months to complete, potentially setting up a clash with the Biden administration. Israel has previously stated its war goal as nothing less than the elimination of Hamas in Gaza.
Gallant told visiting US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during discussions held at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv last week that the war against Hamas will continue for several months.
The minister told Sullivan that Hamas “is a terrorist organization that built itself [up] over a decade to fight Israel, and built infrastructure under the ground and above the ground, and it is not easy to destroy them. It will require a long period of time; it will last more than several months, but we will win, and we will destroy them [Hamas]. So thank you once again for coming to Israel, for helping us and for supporting us.”
Monday's visit is Austin's second to Israel since Hamas's October 7 attack, in which thousands of Palestinian terrorists broke across the border, murdering some 1,200 people, wounding over 5,000 others and taking around 240 hostages back to Gaza. Terrorists in Gaza have fired more than 11,500 rockets at Israel since the start of the war.
On Sunday, Austin traveled to Bahrain, home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, where he discussed maritime security and freedom of navigation in the region in light of continued attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
The Guardian reported on Sunday that during his Middle East visit, Austin will announce the launch of a maritime protection force with the participation of Arab states to counter the Houthi threat to commercial shipping in the Red Sea. It will be provisionally called "Operation Prosperity Guardian."
Austin and Netanyahu both emphasized the Houthi threat during their remarks on Monday.
"This is a threat to the freedom of navigation of the entire world. I appreciate the fact that you are taking action to open the strait," Netanyahu said.
"We are leading a multinational task force to support the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation. Iran's support for Houthi attacks on commercial vessels must stop," Austin remarked.
Austin also made an unscheduled visit on Sunday to Kuwait to pay respects to the country's emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, whose death was announced on Saturday. Austin met with the Kuwaiti deputy prime minister and minister of defense, Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al-Ahmad Al Sabah.
Austin is also scheduled to visit Qatar and meet with the crew of the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. The vessel, the largest warship ever built, was positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean after the October 7 attack as a measure of deterrence against the Israel-Hamas war expanding into a wider regional conflict.