Israel requests delay in US-Israel missile defense exercise

A major U.S.-Israeli missile defense exercise that had been planned to take place in the spring has been postponed due to a request by the Israeli Defense Ministry, American and Israeli officials told Yahoo News Sunday.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a request to the Pentagon last month that the planned joint exercise be postponed, a U.S. official told Yahoo News Sunday.

"It was Barak," the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

The Jewish Telegraph Agency's Ron Kampeas reported earlier Sunday that the exercise was being postponed, ostensibly because of "Israeli budget cuts."

But American officials are privately concerned that the Israeli request for a postponement of the exercise could be one potential warning sign that Israel is trying to leave its options open for conducting a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities in the spring. In that case, it would not wish American forces to then be on the ground, the thinking goes.

An Israeli official downplayed that interpretation. He told Yahoo News Sunday that another possible reason for the delay may be that the Americans and Israelis both considered that such a huge maneuver at this time of heightened tensions between the West and Iran could potentially inflame the situation.

The Israeli Defense Ministry made the decision in consultation with the Pentagon, he said, and the two nations' defense agencies had been expected to issue a joint statement indicating the exercise will be postponed until the second half of the year.

Some Washington observers found both cited Israeli rationales for the delay--budget cuts and Israeli concern about further raising tensions with Iran--as conspicuously thin.

U.S. officials publicly, like their Israeli counterparts, however, said such delays aren't all that unusual.

"I do know 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 in best achieved later in the year," U.S. European Command (EUCOM) spokesman Captain John Ross told Yahoo News by email Sunday.

"Following close consultation between US European Command (EUCOM) and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), exercise 'Austere Challenge 12' will be conducted during the second half of 2012," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Yahoo News by email Sunday.

"It is not at all uncommon for routine exercises to be postponed," Kirby added.

General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is due to arrive in Israel Thursday for consultations, the Associated Press reported. It will be Dempsey's first trip to Israel since assuming the top Pentagon military post in September.

"The Obama administration is concerned that Iran's recent statement that it is expanding nuclear operations with more advanced equipment may push Israel closer to a strike," the AP report said.

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