Israel shoots down drone from Lebanon, Israeli Military says


An Israeli fighter plane shot down a drone from Lebanon over the Mediterranean sea on Thursday as it was approaching the Israeli coast, the military said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was flying in a military helicopter to an event in northern Israel when the unmanned aircraft was spotted along the Lebanese coast by Israeli air defences. His helicopter landed briefly until the interception was completed.

There was no indication from Israeli officials who provided information about the incident that Israel suspected any connection between the dispatch of the drone and Netanyahu's flight, whose details had not been made public.

“I view with great gravity this attempt to violate our border. We will continue to do what is necessary to defend the security of Israel's citizens,” Netanyahu said in a speech at his destination, a Druze village where he met community leaders.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the alleged aerial infiltration.

Asked whether Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrilla group that sent a drone into southern Israel in October, was behind the incident, a military spokesman said an investigation was under way and the navy was trying to salvage wreckage from the aircraft.

“On my way here, in a helicopter, I found out there was an infiltration attempt by a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) into Israeli air space,” Netanyahu said in the Druze village of Julis, some 15 km (9 miles) from the Lebanese border.

“Within a short time, Israeli pilots intercepted this aircraft and shot it down over the sea.”

The military said the unmanned aerial vehicle was detected in Lebanese skies and intercepted by a F-16 fighter jet some 5 nautical miles west of the Israeli port city of Haifa.

A military spokesman said the drone had been flying at an altitude of about 6,000 feet and had been monitored by Israel for about an hour before it was destroyed by an air-to-air missile.

“We don't know where the aircraft was coming from and we don't know where it was actually going,” the spokesman said.

In the incident in October, a Hezbollah drone flew some 35 miles into southern Israel before being shot down by an F-16.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006, and Lebanon has complained to the United Nations about frequent Israeli overflights, apparently to monitor the group's activities.

On Monday, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel would not permit “sophisticated weapons” to fall into the hands of Hezbollah “or other rogue elements” in Syria's civil war.

“When they crossed this red line, we acted,” Yaalon said at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in comments widely interpreted as confirming reports that an Israeli air strike in Syria in January had targeted a Hezbollah-bound arms convoy. (Editing by Alison Williams)

Iron Dome intercepts rocket fired by Gaza militants at Israeli city


The Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted a Grad-type Katyusha rocket fired by Gaza militants toward the southern city of Ashdod on Thursday, following hours of relative calm along Israel’s border with the coastal enclave.

Two more projectiles hit an open field in the Eshkol and Ashkelon regional Councils; no wounded reported.

The attack came after Palestinian militants fired three Grad rockets toward the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva on Thursday morning, following strikes by Israel Air Force craft against multiple targets in the Strip overnight.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Delay of U.S.-Israel anti-missile exercise fuels speculation


The decision by Israel and the United States to delay a massive joint anti-missile exercise set off a frenzy of speculation as to what the move says about relations between the two allies amid mounting tensions with Iran.

U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed to JTA over the weekend that they had delayed until the second half of 2012 what was to have been the largest-ever joint anti-missile exercise, Austere Challenge 12.

Speaking off the record, officials in the United States and Israel confirmed published reports that Iran factored into the decision. But just how Iran factored in they would not say, and they insisted that the overriding factor had to do with preparedness for the exercise and Israeli budgetary concerns.

A Pentagon spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, said in an e-mail that the exercise was canceled for routine reasons of wanting “optimum participation” by both sides.

“It is not at all uncommon for routine exercises to be postponed,” Kirby said. “There were a variety of factors at play in this case, but in general, leaders from both sides believe that optimum participation by all units is best achieved later in the year. We remain dedicated to this exercise and naturally want it to be as robust and as productive as it can be.”

On background, Israeli and U.S. officials said that “optimum conditions” had to do with defense spending, now the subject of a fierce debate in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure, after a summer of protests, to increase social safety net spending.

In October, Netanyahu said he would cut defense spending to fund social spending, but last week he reversed course, hiking defense allocations by $700 million.

The fluctuating positions have created uncertainty in Israel’s defense establishment, and U.S. officials confirmed an account originally reported by Laura Rozen of Yahoo News that it was Defense Minister Ehud Barak who requested the delay in December.

Critics of the Obama administration were not buying it, insisting that the delay revealed a fissure between President Obama and Netanyahu over how to handle Iran. Some suggested that the Obama administration feared the joint exercise would further ratchet up tensions with Iran.

Danielle Pletka, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the announcement fit into a pattern of what she depicted as the Obama administration’s overly cautious approach to Iran’s aggression, including its threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, which would cut off much of the West’s oil supply.

“Now they cancel these exercises with the Israelis and make the Israelis say they asked for it,” she said. “For the Iranians there is only one message here. That is: ‘Our tactics are working!’ ”

One Israeli report, on the country’s Channel 2, quoted unnamed Israeli officials as saying that it was the U.S. that requested the postponement, although U.S. officials and other Israelis have pushed back, insisting that it was Israel that made the request.

Pentagon officials reached out to journalists Tuesday to reinforce their claim that it was Israel, not the United States, that requested the delay. According to an unnamed senior U.S. defense official cited by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barak requested to cancel the exercise because he feared the Israeli military lacked the resources to carry it out effectively.

The official said that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta objected, fearing that it would send Iran a signal that Israel and the United States were wavering.

“Panetta’s initial reaction was, ‘I don’t want to take this off the calendar,’ ” Goldberg quoted the official as saying. Panetta, the official said, was unwilling to cancel the exercise but agreed to a postponement.

Still, speculation regarding the exercise’s postponement reflects worries over whether the United States and Israel are on the same page when it comes to Iran.

There have been reports that Obama is pressing Netanyahu not to strike Iran—or at least to notify the United States in advance of such a strike. More recently, the U.S. condemned last week’s assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, a killing that many commentators suggest was carried out by the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency.

One theory circulating in the wake of the cancellation of the postponement of the anti-missile exercises is that Israel may be retreating from close defense cooperation, in part because of the U.S. pressure to coordinate on Iran.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. joint military chiefs of staff, is due to arrive in Israel on Thursday and is expected to again press Israel not to strike Iran.

Eitan Barak, an assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, suggested that Israel’s refusal to commit to notifying the U.S. in advance of any military plans “could be an exercise to employ pressure on the United States to urge it to act against Iran.”

He said that Israel has in the past ratcheted up its defensive posture as a means of pressuring the United States and the West to confront a regional threat. He noted that during the first Gulf War, in 1991, Israel pulled its missiles out of their silos after suffering a barrage of Iraqi Scud missiles. Israel was signaling impatience with the failure of allied forces to take out Scud missile launchers in western Iraq.

“Once the U.S. satellites detected the missiles, the United States took Israel seriously” and started hitting western Iraqi targets, the Hebrew University’s Barak said. “It was a clear signal, if you don’t do something, we will.”

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst who lives in Israel, said the announcement of the decision to delay the anti-missile exercise could as easily be spun as a tale of closer Israel-U.S. cooperation.

“The preference here is for a negotiated settlement,” Javedanfar said. “Nobody in Israel wants Iran to havea nuclear bomb—this is one of the few nonpartisan issues—but we are also aware that the war with Iran could have far-reaching consequences, including our relationship with the United States.”

The decision to postpone a robust U.S.-Israel show of strength could be tied to signals that Iran is softening its position on negotiations over increasing the transparency of its nuclear program, he suggested. Western nations believe the program is aimed at building a bomb, while Iran insists it is peaceful.

Iran has invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit its facilities later this month, a key U.S. demand, and the Obama administration reportedly is considering a Turkish offer to broker new talks on making transparent Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

“The Israeli way of making Khameini sit with Obama is to make it clear all options are on the table,” Javedanfar said, referring to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. “The idea is to get Khameini to return to the table with a serious offer.”

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