Israel signs defense pact with Morocco, as cooperation with new Arab partners builds

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Israel signed a defense pact with Morocco on Wednesday, its latest public display of readiness to advance national security interests in tandem with Arab countries that have drawn closer to it amid shared concern over Iran and Islamist militancy.

The memorandum of understanding could herald intelligence cooperation, arms deals and joint military training, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in Rabat.

His two-day visit came within weeks of an Israeli-hosted air force drill that was attended by an Emirati general, and naval maneuvers by Israel, UAE and Bahrain. The two Gulf states, along with Morocco and Sudan, forged relations with Israel last year.

After the signing ceremony with Abdellatif Loudiyi, Morocco’s defense administration minister, a senior Gantz aide said he saw a Moroccan market for Israeli counter-insurgency know-how.

“This is a deal that will enable us to help them with what they need from us, of course subject to our interests in the region,” the aide, Zohar Palti, told Israel’s Kan broadcaster.

“Morocco has for years been battling terror on several fronts, and is a country that is struggling against al Qaeda and global jihadi groups.”

Rabat had no immediate comment on Wednesday’s agreement. Its Royal Armed Forces said the countries previously signed an memorandum on cyber cooperation and data security – the latter a possible preamble to purchases of high-end Israeli military technologies.

Israeli media have speculated about possible sales to Morocco of pilotless aircraft or missile defense systems.

The chief of Israel’s air force, Major-General Amikam Norkin, declined to discuss any such specific prospects at a conference on Tuesday, saying only that he favored “airpower diplomacy” with Arab partners to help offset Iran’s clout.

“I think that this (Gantz visit to Rabat) is an opportunity,” Norkin said, recalling how, at this month’s Dubai Airshow, his Moroccan counterpart had come to introduce himself and “added a few sentences in Hebrew” when they conversed.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid travelled to Morocco in August for the first visit by Israel’s top diplomat to that country since 2003.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)

Estonia, Finland say Russia entered airspace before U.S. defense pact

Picture of Russian SU-27 fighter violating Finland's airspace near Porvoo, Finland,

By Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl

HELSINKI (Reuters) – Estonia said a Russian jet violated its airspace on Friday, hours after neighboring Finland said two similar planes passed over its territory as it prepared to sign a defense pact with the United States.

Moscow denied sending planes across anyone’s borders – but one analyst said the flights could have been staged as a reminder of Russia’s influence, as countries in the region looked to strengthen ties with the West.

Estonia’s defense ministry said a Russian fighter jet entered its airspace for less than a minute with its transponder turned off at 2.38 a.m. (7.38 p.m. ET, Thursday).

Helsinki said two different SU-27 planes crossed into its airspace on Thursday afternoon and evening, over the Gulf of Finland – the body of water that separates it from Estonia.

“We take these incidents seriously,” Finland’s defense minister, Jussi Niinisto, told reporters. “Having two suspected violations on the same day is exceptional.”

Russia’s defense ministry dismissed the reports, saying SU-27 military planes had conducted training flights on Thursday and Friday over neutral waters, Russian agencies reported.

Finland has grown increasingly worried about military activities by Russia – its former ruler with which it shares a 1,300-km (812-mile) land border – particularly since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

In response, Finland has tightened cooperation with Sweden and fostered closer ties with NATO. On Friday it signed a defense cooperation deal with the United States, covering training and information sharing but stopping short of military assistance.

“It’s positive that United States is interested in Northern Europe’s security situation and of collaboration with the region’s countries. We see this as a stabilizing element,” Niinisto said.

He declined to speculate on whether Russia had tried to show its power before his meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Work.

But Charly Salonius-Pasternak, analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said it was “entirely credible, that airspace violations were a reminder from Russia: ‘Hey, we are still here’.”

“It costs them nothing, and they can see that these violations have an effect on Finland,” he told public broadcaster YLE.

In April, two Russian warplanes flew simulated attack passes near a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea.

(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow, editing by Richard Balmforth)