How Sending Fewer U.S. Troops to Israeli Joint Exercise Further Strains Relations

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Israeli soldiers are seen operating a machine gun during a military exercise in the Golan Heights, Israel, on Aug. 21, 2012

TIME’s report on the substantial scaling back of U.S. participation in next month’s joint military exercise with Israel created some waves. The story, posted on Friday, quoted military sources in both countries describing a much reduced American presence — from 5,000 troops to perhaps 1,500 — in Austere Challenge 12, which Israel was to host in May and then asked to postpone until October. The delay came at the crest of the first wave of speculation (there has been at least one more since) that Israel was on the verge of launching an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The joint exercise is significant not only because it aims to blend Israeli and American military capabilities, but because the specific capability being blended this year is antimissile systems. Israel has excellent missile shields of its own, but not enough of them to protect most of its population, so the arrival of U.S. Patriot batteries and other missile defense might be seen as a timely supplement, one that some might fear helps set the stage for an Israeli attack. Or simply gives the appearance of doing so, which in the game of brinkmanship and concessions matters almost as much.

What many Israelis saw in the news, however, was one more worrying example of the strain Iran is causing between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. “Severe Crisis of Trust Between Israel and White House” was the headline on the front page of Maariv. The daily Yedioth Ahronoth said Israeli defense officials “believed that figures who wanted to undermine security relations between the two countries were behind the report.”

(PHOTOS: Israel Drills for a Missile Strike)

In fact, the two militaries spoke in one voice about the report, denying not the reduction in U.S. forces but the meaning being read into it, especially by a senior Israeli officer quoted as saying: “Basically what the Americans are saying is, ‘We don’t trust you.’”

“The claims are baseless,” a Ministry of Defense official tells TIME. “The fact is the numbers of soldiers are an internal American issue, and they have their own considerations. The security dialogue and the defense relationship is as strong and secure and as intimate as ever. All changes that are made to the exercise were changes in complete coordination with all parties taking part in the exercise.”

Pentagon spokesman Lieut. Colonel Todd Breasseale concurred in an e-mail:

            When the exercise was moved, the U.S. notified Israel that due to concurrent operations, the U.S. would provide a smaller number of personnel and equipment than originally planned … and again, Israel reiterated its request to postpone until late fall.

        Austere Challenge 12 remains the largest-ever ballistic-missile-defense exercise between our nations and a significant increase from the previous event in 2009. The exercise has not changed in scope and will include the same types of systems as planned. All deployed systems will be fully operational with associated operators.

          As Israel Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has repeatedly said, the U.S.-Israel defense relationship is stronger than it has ever been. The U.S. agrees. Austere Challenge is a tangible sign of our mutual trust and our shared commitment to the defense of our nations.

(MORE: Is Israel Angling for a Commitment from Obama on Iran?)

The details of the joint exercise will become clear next month, when it finally unfolds. Officials from both militaries told TIME that only one Aegis antimissile ship would be deployed, down from two, and that the Patriot batteries will be operated by “skeleton” crews, with the exception of a small number participating in a firing-range exercise. The last joint exercise involved 1,000 U.S. troops, so 1,500 is indeed an increase — though certainly much less than the 5,000 originally proposed.

What’s clear at the moment is that there’s no great quarrel between the Israeli and American militaries. They routinely operate “in lockstep” as another Pentagon spokesperson put it, with a level of mutual cooperation that was only enhanced by the United States–Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012. The bill was signed at the end of July (not long after the Americans informed their Israeli counterparts that they were scaling back the joint exercise) and promises specific hardware, like midair refueling tankers, not previously forthcoming in the $3 billion annual military aid package from Washington. There’s every reason for the militaries to get along famously these days.

The friction in the alliance is between higher officials, what Israelis call “the political echelon.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scolded the world beyond Israel’s borders on Sunday that it needed to serve Iran a deadline. And the Hebrew press on Monday was rife with reports that the Obama Administration was quarreling openly with Netanyahu over the right way to deal with Tehran. Exhibit A was Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey’s remarks in London on Thursday, warning that an attack by Israel would likely fail to destroy the Iranian program but effectively destroy the international movement painstakingly assembled against it.

As it happened, Dempsey’s remark also explained the political logic of reducing the number of U.S. troops traveling to Israel on the eve of a presidential election: “I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it,” Dempsey said.

MORE: Why Do Israeli Media Keep Predicting War with Iran?

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