by Marsha B. Cohen
At least two Israeli news sources reported on Thursday that Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, chief of staff of the US Air Force, recently wrapped up a one week visit to Israel where he was hosted by the chief of the Israel Air Force, Major General Amir Eshel. The visit was supposed to have been secret, according to Walla, the Hebrew language news site that first broke the news of Welsh’s visit. The Jerusalem Post, after independently verifying the story, published a summary of the Walla account in English, with very few details.
Walla claimed the US had asked that Welsh’s visit remain confidential, in light of Israeli threats to strike Iran, noting that the Israeli Air Force has been training for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities for at least ten years. Algemeiner, a hawkish American Jewish news site, inferred from the Walla report that the purpose of Welsh’s clandestine visit was to coordinate an attack on Iran by Israel and the US and headlined its story “Head of U.S. Air Force Secretly Visited Israel to Discuss Iran Strike”. The revelation of Welsh’s stealthy Israel trip was also picked up by Press TV, a state-run Iranian news site.
Both Walla and the Jerusalem Post noted that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be arriving in Israel on Monday as the guest of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. The two are “expected to discuss developments in Iran, Syria and Egypt with Israeli leaders.” The JP suggested that Dempsey might use his visit as an opportunity to discern “Israeli intentions”, convince Israel to “refrain from dramatic decisions” and accord diplomacy a chance to succeed with Iran’s newly inaugurated President Hassan Rouhani.
According to the AFT, Welsh’s trip “was not a secret mission at all” despite being characterized as such by Israeli news sources. Although Israeli media has attributed the silence surrounding the trip to regional tensions and the ongoing crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, Air Force spokeswoman Megan Schafer said that Welsh simply didn’t talk to the press during his visit.
Welsh, who has served since 2012 as the most senior uniformed officer in the Air Force — a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who advises the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council and the President on military matters — waxed rhapsodic about his Israeli hosts and the glowing prospects for furthering U.S.-Israeli cooperation.
It was also a great privilege to visit with our partners from the Israeli Air Force. We had the chance to discuss mutual opportunities with these incredible airmen. We also had the unbelievable honor of meeting with the former Israeli Air Chiefs and hearing their remarkable stories of leadership and patriotism. I leave here reminded of what a strong partner we have in the Israeli Air Force, and what a great leader they have in my friend Amir Eshel. Partnership and cooperation will be critical in the future, and, together, our future is bright.
That sort of unabashed praise, along with the question of the “secrecy” of Welsh’s visit, raises some points worth pondering. Washington and Tel Aviv government officials and defense contractors are constantly traveling between the US and Israel. Members of Congress from both parties happily participate in AIPAC-sponsored “fact-finding” jaunts. Israeli politicians invited to the US regularly testify to Congress not only about Israel’s need for military assistance but also to make sure that the defense, intelligence and foreign policy establishments look at the world — particularly the Middle East — through Israeli eyes. Was Welsh’s visit just business as usual? Or was it really intended to be “secret”, and if so, why?
Finally, if Welsh’s consultation with his IAF counterpart was not a secret and the Israelis were given the impression that it was and broke the story anyway, what does that tell us about our most trusted — and perhaps our only — ally in the Middle East?