Israel is holding its largest-ever air force exercise this week with the participation of several countries including the United Arab Emirates, with whom it normalised ties last year.
Amir Lazar, chief of Israeli air force operations, told reporters at the southern Ovda airbase the drills “don’t focus on Iran”, but army officials have said Iran remains Israel’s top strategic threat and at the centre of much of its military planning.
Israel has held the so-called “Blue Flag” exercises every two years since 2013 in the Negev desert to synchronise different types of aircraft, piloted by different countries to counter armed drones and other threats.
With more than 70 fighter jets and some 1,500 personnel participating, this year’s drills are the largest-ever held in Israel, Lazar said.
Among the nations taking part are France, the United States and Germany, as well as the United Kingdom, whose aircraft flew over Israeli territory for the first time since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948.
While UAE aircraft are not flying, the Emirate’s air force chief was set to inspect the drills.
Lazar said the visit, set for Tuesday, was “very significant” as “someday” the nations participating in the drill would be “working together” to counter the Iranian threat.
Tel Aviv normalised ties last year with several Arab countries, including the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, through deals brokered by former US President Donald Trump.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Sunday condemned the normalisation, saying those countries had “sinned” and should reverse such moves.
“It is an act against Islamic unity, they must return from this path and make up for this big mistake,” Khamenei said in a speech marking a public holiday honouring the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.
In addition to Iran’s nuclear programme, Israel has sought to sound the alarm over a fleet of drones it claims Tehran is dispatching to its proxies across the Middle East, including in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
Iran and Israel have exchanged sharp rhetoric recently against the backdrop of efforts to renew talks to revive a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.