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Leaks on delayed U.S.-Israel war-game reveal fissures

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Defense Sec. Panetta welcomed Israel Def. Min. Barak to the Pentagon Sept. 19, 2011. (Win McNamee/Getty)

On Sunday, Israeli media reported that a massive U.S.-Israel missile defense exercise planned to take place in the spring had been postponed, ostensibly because of Israeli budget cuts.

Israel's Ministry of Defense and the U.S. European Command had been preparing to jointly issue a statement on the decision to postpone the war games--called "Operation Austere Challenge 12"--in order to portray the delay as a mutual decision and routine, an Israeli official told Yahoo News Sunday.

But because the decision to postpone the war games leaked first in Israel, plans for a joint statement didn't materialize Sunday, and rumors subsequently abounded about what explained it. Was the United States distancing itself from Israel's hawkish stance towards Iran, some Iran watchers wondered. Is it plausible that Israeli budget cuts could explain why the massive exercise--to involve thousands of American and Israeli troops--was being postponed from April until the second half of 2012--since it would seemingly cost just as much to conduct the drill a few months later?

In response to questions about the various theories flying about, several current and former American officials told Yahoo News Sunday on condition of anonymity that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had last month issued a request to the Pentagon that the exercise be postponed. The United States did not seek the delay--and American sources privately voiced concern that the Israeli request for a postponement of the exercise could be read as a potential warning sign that Israel is leaving its options open to conduct a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities in the spring. Thus, the concern went, it may not want 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Israel in April and May, as had been scheduled for the exercise.

Meantime, in Israel, an unnamed Israeli defense official told Israel's Channel 2 Sunday that budget cuts weren't the reason for the delay. In actuality, the Israeli defense source was cited by Channel 2, the United States had requested the delay in the war games, in order to avoid further escalating tensions with Iran at this time.

It's a contention American officials flatly deny--and has left some in the Pentagon puzzled.

To the various rumors circulating that the United States had instigated the delay, one U.S. official told Yahoo News Sunday: "b.s. It was Barak."

Publicly, various Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and a spokesman for the prime minister, said Monday that the United States and Israel had mutually decided to postpone the exercises in order to not further inflame heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf.

"The thinking was it was not the right timing now to conduct such an exercise," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Monday, the Associated Press reported, which added that Regev declined to further elaborate.

"Speaking Monday on Israel Radio, Mr. Lieberman cited 'diplomatic and regional reasons, the tensions and instability' as factors in delaying the exercise," the New York Times' Isabel Kershner reported.

Observers of the awkward efforts to explain the war-games postponement can't help but wonder at the fact that an exercise that was supposed to show unprecedented mutual cooperation between the United States and Israel with an eye toward Iran has instead revealed signs of strain and apprehension in the two countries' defense relations.

Meantime, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrives in Israel Thursday on his first trip to the Jewish state since assuming the post in September. He is reportedly expected to tell his Israeli counterparts the United States opposes an Israeli strike on Iran.

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