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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Holds a Joint Press Conference With Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant

STAFF: Good afternoon, everyone. Secretary Austin, it is an honor to have you here in the State of Israel.

Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently completed a series of meetings and will now be delivering statements to the press, followed by several questions, as coordinated in advance.

Please, Minister Gallant.

DEFENSE MINISTER YOAV GALLANT: Dear Mr. Secretary, welcome. It is my pleasure and honor to host you in Israel. Your visit reflects the powerful bonds and friendship between the United States and Israel, the strategic relation between our countries and the deep defense ties. Under your leadership, our cooperation has reached new heights. Two recent examples include the transition of the IDF to CENTCOM and the excellent joint exercise Juniper Oak. These bonds is critical to regional stability and the security of the State of Israel. This includes above all, ensuring Israel's military superiority in the region.

Today, we find ourself at a critical point in time. In the coming period, we will need to make pressing and important decisions. Iran aims to gain nuclear weapons and threatened not only Israel, but the entire world. Mr. Secretary, it is our duty to take all measures necessary to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapon. In this matter, our capabilities and our cooperation have great meaning and power.

We dedicate a great part of our meeting today to discussing areas of defense cooperation. The Iranian nuclear threat requires us to be prepared for every course of action. I repeat and emphasize, we must be prepared for every course of action. Should Iran gain nuclear weapons and the power of nuclear deterrence, the Ayatollah regime will only increase its activities supporting Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism and exporting advanced weapons around the world, including UAVs and accurate missiles. We will see terrorism against innocence across the region, including the people of Iran, who suffer a violent and oppressive regime.

Mr. Secretary, as the son of Holocaust survivors, I am fully aware of the heavy mission that rests on my shoulders, on our shoulders. We must do everything in our power to ensure that the dreams of the Ayatollahs are never fulfilled at any cost.

As for the Palestinian arena, the state of Israel seeks stability and security. We are interested in the economic prosperity and the wellbeing of the Palestinian people, in Judea and Samaria, and in Gaza. This should never come at the expense of the life of a single citizen of Israel, and in face of terrorism, we will be determined, precise and powerful.

Secretary Austin, allow me on this occasion to express my sincere appreciation on behalf of Israel defense establishment for your unshakable and personal commitment to the ties between our countries and to the security of the state of Israel. I look forward to continue working closely with you.

Today, we show our friends and our enemies that from the youngest soldiers to the highest leadership, Israel and the United States stand shoulder to shoulder. Thank you very much.

STAFF: Please, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, good afternoon, everyone. It is terrific to be back in Israel. And Minister Gallant, thanks for a very productive meeting. You know, we've already spoken several times by phone but it's great to be here and to be able to sit down in person with you and your team.

And I wanted to be here to make something very clear- America's commitment to Israel's security is ironclad and it's going to stay that way. As President Biden said on his visit to Israel last year, the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep.

Israel is a major strategic partner for the United States, and that very special relationship began when President Truman became the first world leader to recognize the state of Israel, 11 minutes after it was formed. And that was some 75 years ago.

And our bond is rooted in far more than just shared interests. It's rooted in the shared values of democracy and freedom and the rule of law, and those values remain essential. As President Biden has said, "the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, and on an independent judiciary." And the President also noted that "building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained."

Now, for generations and across governments, the United States and Israel have worked together to strengthen our ties. You can see the depth of our commitment to Israel's security in the robust assistance that the United States provides to Israel.

Our historic Memorandum of Understanding with Israel provides $3.3 billion annually for security assistance, as well as additional funding for cooperation on missile defense. And I'm proud that President Biden reaffirmed his support for the Memorandum of Understanding and last year's historic Jerusalem Declaration. And that declaration again reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel's security.

You can also see our commitment in the Juniper Oak exercise in January between CENTCOM and the IDF. About 6,400 U.S. troops participated in this year's Juniper Oak alongside more than 1,500 Israeli troops and the exercise integrated U.S. and Israeli fifth generation fighter assets and included a live fire exercise with more than 140 aircraft. It was highly ambitious and highly successful.

And Juniper Oak underscored the depth of our security partnership. It was a key step forward in interoperability, helping us both to better address regional threats. And it showed our ability to swiftly flow in forces and respond to crisis, even while maintaining our commitments in other key theaters.

Now, as you'd expect and you heard the Minister say, much of our discussion today focused on the threats posed by Iran. Iran remains the primary driver of instability in the region and we remain deeply concerned by Iran's support for terrorism, its dangerous proxies, its nuclear advances, its aggression at sea, its cyber threats, and its proliferation of attack drones and advanced conventional weapons.

Now, we continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. As President Biden has repeatedly made clear, the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Now, Iran's destabilizing actions are not just a threat to Israel, they are a challenge to the region and to the world. We're especially concerned by Iran's growing strategic partnership with Russia, including using Iranian drones to terrorize and kill innocent civilians in Ukraine.

And over the past year, Russia's military cooperation with Iran has deepened, and that poses serious challenges for this region and for the safety of your citizens. Iran is gaining important battlefield expertise and experience in Ukraine that will eventually transfer to its dangerous proxies in the Middle East.

In return for Iranian support in Ukraine, Russia has been offering Iran unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles and air defense. And all that just reminds us of the stakes as Russia's cruel and unprovoked war of choice enters its second year.

Now, Israel has been providing helpful humanitarian support for Ukraine and I'm also grateful for Israel's participation in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group that I convene. Yet we're also calling on all of our allies and partners to step up now at this hinge moment in history.

Nations of good will, and especially our fellow democracies, must all urgently do their part to help Ukraine fight for its freedom. And we must all come together to resist Putin's grim vision of a world where autocrats get to decide which countries can be snuffed out. So we'll continue to stand up for our interests, our principles and our friends.

And the minister and I discussed ways to deepen our cooperation with Israel and our other partners in the region. And we look forward to continuing to integrate Israel into the region's security architecture.

You know, as a former CENTCOM commander, I am especially proud that Israel has now been rightfully shifted to the CENTCOM area of responsibility. That change and the historic Abraham Accords have opened the door to even greater regional security cooperation. And that means new opportunities to share early warning and to integrate air defense capabilities and to expand maritime domain awareness. And that's going to help expand security and prosperity for people across the Middle East.

Now, we're meeting today at a time of tension. So we had a very frank and candid discussion among friends about the need to de-escalate, to lower tensions and to restore calm, especially before the holidays of Passover and Ramadan.

As we always have, we're calling on the Palestinian leadership to combat terrorism and to resume security cooperation and to condemn incitement. And as I always have, I was very clear about Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism. I extend my deepest condolences to the families of Israelis who were killed and wounded during recent terrorist attacks. And I am here as a friend who is deeply committed to the security of the state of Israel.

But the United States also remains firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric. And we're especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians. So we'll continue to oppose actions that could push a two-state solution further out of reach. And we'll work to build on the February 26th agreement in Jordan, including the commitment by the parties to de-escalate on the ground and to prevent further violence and to fully implement the terms of the Aqaba Communique.

So we had a big agenda today. We had a highly constructive discussion. And, Yoav, I am grateful for the chance to further deepen our security cooperation. Again, our commitment to Israel's security is not negotiable. And I look forward to continuing to work together to make Israel even more secure over the long haul.

So thanks again for your friendship, and thanks to everyone for being here. And with that, I believe we'll take some questions.

MIN. GALLANT: Thank you very much, sir. Thank you.

STAFF: We'll start with (inaudible), Jerusalem Post?

Q: Hi, Secretary Austin. Thanks so much for coming to Israel. The IAEA chief, Rafael Grossi, recently announced a new deal with Iran, expressed a lot of optimism about a return to the JCPOA but had downplayed the 84 percent uranium enrichment issue. He said, you know, maybe it was a mistake. How dangerous do you think the 84 percent enrichment issue was, since it's so close to the 90 percent weaponized uranium enrichment level? And how decisive should that be regarding Israeli and American policy in Iran not just this week, but in the coming months? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks for the question. You know, this is yet another example of Iran's dangerous nuclear advances, and of course, I am deeply concerned. President Biden's preference is to explore all diplomatic avenues to ensure that we constrain Iran's progress in this field, and so we would look to continue at t work to make sure that we constrain their dangerous advances. And my job as secretary of defense, as you know, is to provide the president options, if he so desires. Thanks.

STAFF: We'll take a question from Idrees Ali, Reuters.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the current Israeli government is the most far right it's been in its history. One of its ministers called for a Palestinian village to be wiped out, and that was during the Aqaba meetings. Do you feel comfortable working with and trusting a government that has individuals who have these beliefs? And secondly, some reservists in the Israeli military have said they will boycott training unless Prime Minister Netanyahu changes his position on judicial reform. Are you concerned about the readiness of the Israeli military and what it might mean for any potential action against Iran?

And Mr. Minister, critics have said that a number of Ukrainian lives could have been saved if Israel provided military weapons. Did Secretary Austin make any specific asks from you in those terms? And what will it take for Israel to provide military aid, even if it's defensive in nature?

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Idrees. I -- at the top here, let me say that I defer to my colleague here to comment on the readiness of the Israeli forces. But in terms of our ability to work together, you've heard me say a number of times in various places that our commitment to the security of Israel is ironclad. They have been great partners throughout, and they will continue to be great partners going forward. And our commitment to the security of Israel will not waiver. It will not change. It is not negotiable, as I said earlier, so --

MIN. GALLANT: Well, as I said before and I mentioned, we have to be ready for every course of action. All the options are on the table. One thing have to be made clear, loud and clear: Israel will not allow Iran to possess weapons of mass destructions, nuclear weapons aiming Israel.

As to the second questions, we are doing our best efforts in coordination with the United States to help the Ukraine government to protect its people and we are doing it under the understanding of what are the Israeli interest in the region.

STAFF: We have time for one last question. Felicia Schwartz, Financial Times?

Q: Thank you. Secretary Austin, are you concerned that the ongoing violence in the West Bank distracts from U.S. and Israel's efforts to cooperate on confronting Iran?

And Minister Gallant, is Israel sharing intelligence with the U.S. about Iranian weapons that are being used in Ukraine? And on the IAEA's finding about enriched uranium to 84 percent, what do you think that means for the length of the window you have to take action to stop Iran from passing the nuclear threshold?

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Felicia. As I said earlier, I remain concerned about what we're seeing in terms of escalation of violence, and I did discuss those concerns with my colleagues. And we are urging everyone to de-escalate in terms of activities in the West Bank. Our focus remains on working with Israel and the Palestinians and other regional partners to de-escalate and restore calm.

Our relationship with Israel remains enduring and ironclad, and so again, there's work to be done, and we had some great discussions on a number of issues today, so --

MIN. GALLANT: Thank you. As to the first question, let me put it this way: While Israel is searching, looking for its enemies, we find some others. And as to what is transfer in-between us and our great friends in the United States, this is an issue that I have to consult with the United States before announcing it.

As to the second question, I think that it was said loud and clear, that Israel will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons, while saying at the same time that their means is to destroy the State of Israel. I am the son of Holocaust survivors. I am not going to betray my loyalty to this chain of generation. This is our demand, to stay strong and to secure the future of the Jewish people. Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you very much.

MIN. GALLANT: That's it?

STAFF: That's it.

MIN. GALLANT: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

STAFF: Thank very much, everyone.

MIN. GALLANT: Thank you very much.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thank you. You're a great colleague, great partner.

MIN. GALLANT: Thank you.