TEL AVIV - Washington is sending a significantly smaller number of troops to Israel for a joint military drill scheduled to take place in October, a U.S. military official confirmed Sunday.
The U.S. has vehemently denied reports that the reduction is a sign of tensions between the administrations of President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel's persistent threats to launch an airstrike on Iran.
The U.S. source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the decision had to do with budget constraints, and stressed that it will still be the largest joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise ever.
The "Austere Challenge 12" drill is to simulate missiles landing in Israel, fired by Iran, Syria or other antagonistic states. The U.S. has supplied Israel with interception batteries.
Netanyahu has been pressuring Obama to take a stronger position against Iran, most recently demanding a “a clear red line” be drawn over its nuclear program that, should Iran cross it, opens the country to attack.
Netanyahu has grown increasingly frustrated by U.S. determination to avoid a war with Iran if at all possible. In London last week U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey made known his own reluctance to see American troops pulled into another regional war because Israel strikes Iran.
"I don't want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it,” he told The Guardian newspaper in Britain.
Meanwhile, White House spokesman Jay Carney denied an Israeli media report that the U.S. signaled to Iran through two European countries that it would not strike the Persian state as long as Iran does not threaten American forces in the region.
"It's incorrect, completely incorrect," Carney told Reuters during an Obama campaign trip in Ohio. "The report is false and we don't talk about hypotheticals."
More than 1,000 U.S. troops will now participate from within Israel in the drill, the official told DPA, far less than the original number planned. But many more will participate remotely from abroad, meaning the total number will remain roughly the same, he said.
"The U.S. commitment to Israel is as strong as it has ever been" and the drill "represents a major commitment by the U.S. military," he told DPA.
Israeli newspapers reported earlier this year that the drill had been postponed amid U.S. concern that holding it could be interpreted by Iran as a provocation.
"The goal is not to heat up the region," a senior security official told Israel's biggest-selling daily, Yediot Ahronot.
The 2012 drill would still be significantly larger than a similar one held with Israel in late 2009, the U.S. source said.
Time Magazine reported Friday that some 5,000 U.S. troops were to have participated in Israel according to the original plan. It also said that Patriot anti-missile systems will still arrive in Israel as planned, but without the crews needed to operate them. Furthermore, instead of two Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense warships, only one, or perhaps none at all, will be dispatched to Israeli-controlled waters.
The drill comes amid intense speculation that Israel is planning to bomb Iran's controversial nuclear facilities, possibly before the U.S. elections in November.
If Israel attacks, Tehran and its allies, including the radical Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, are expected to retaliate by launching missiles at Israeli cities.
An Israeli military statement sent to DPA Sunday said the drill was "routine," planned in advance and "not in response to any real-world event."
Military.com contributed to this report.