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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Israel opens first joint US missile defence base

A senior Israeli air force officer did not comment on the specific role of the new joint base, but said the 'few dozen' US personnel there would be under Israeli command

Israel's Brigadier General Zvika Haimovich, right, and US Major General John L Gronski sign an agreement during a ceremony at the joint Bislach Air Base, near Mitzpe Ramon in southern Israel, on September 18, 2017. Tsafrir Abayov / AP
Israel's Brigadier General Zvika Haimovich, right, and US Major General John L Gronski sign an agreement during a ceremony at the joint Bislach Air Base, near Mitzpe Ramon in southern Israel, on September 18, 2017. Tsafrir Abayov / AP

Israel and the US have inaugurated their first ever joint missile defence base in Israel, a senior Israeli air force officer said.

The new facility, at an undisclosed location in southern Israel, was announced on Monday as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US president Donald Trump in New York on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly.

"We inaugurated, with our partners from the United States army, an American base, for the first time in Israel," said Brigadier General Tzvika Heimowitz, head of Israeli missile defences.

"An American flag is flying permanently over a US army base situated inside one of our bases."

Brig Gen Heimowitz said the move was not a direct response to any specific incident or immediate threat, but was a combination of "lessons learnt" in the 2014 war in Gaza and intelligence analysis of future dangers.

"We have many enemies around us, near and far," he said.

The outgoing Israeli air force chief in June warned neighbouring countries of the "unimaginable" military power he claimed was at Israel's disposal.

Earlier this month, Syria's army accused Israeli warplanes of hitting one of its positions, killing two people in an attack that a monitoring group said targeted a site where the Syrian regime allegedly produces chemical weapons.

Israel, without confirming it was behind the attack, indirectly warned Syria and Iran that it would not tolerate any "Shiite corridor from Tehran to Damascus".

Read more: Risks remain as Iraqi militias press ahead with Iran's bridge to Syria

Israel accuses Iran of building sites to produce "precision-guided missiles" in both Syria and Lebanon and Mr Netanyahu was expected to reiterate the point in his talks with Mr Trump. In comments at the start of the meeting, the Israeli prime minister said he wanted to focus on the Iranian threat and Tehran's growing clout in Syria.

Israel — which has bought 50F-35 stealth fighters from the US — has a sophisticated anti-missile defence system, including the Iron Dome short-range interceptor which has successfully brought down rockets fired from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt's Sinai region and Gaza.

It also has the medium-range David's Sling and the Arrow missile defence system, designed to counter more distant threats.

Brig Gen Heimowitz did not comment on the specific role of the new joint base, but said the "few dozen" US personnel there would be under Israeli command.

"This is not part of an exercise or manoeuvre," he said. "It is a presence as part of the joint effort of Israel and the US to improve defence."

Mr Netanyahu was the first leader to have a one-on-one with Mr Trump at the US president's first UN General Assembly, an annual week of high-level diplomacy.

At the start of the talks, Mr Trump was at pains to remind reporters that he has not forgotten his pledge to help negotiate an end to the long dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We're going to be discussing many things; among them, peace between the Palestinians and Israel — it will be a fantastic achievement," he said, sitting with Mr Netanyahu.

"We are giving it an absolute go. I think there's a good chance that it could happen. Most people would say there's no chance whatsoever," he said.

"I actually think with the capability of Bibi and, frankly, the other side, I really think we have a chance."

"I think Israel would like to see it, and I think the Palestinians would like to see it. And I can tell you that the Trump administration would like to see it," he added.

"So we're working very hard on it. We'll see what happens. Historically, people say it can't happen. I say it can happen."

Mr Netanyahu, meanwhile, agreed to discuss the "opportunity for peace" between Israel and Palestinians and, in his preferred emphasis, "between Israel and the Arab World".

Mr Trump is due to meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday, again at the UN assembly.

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