U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brief the press in Jerusalem, Aug. 1, 2012.
But after a flurry of high-level visits, including one by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to Israel on Wednesday, a number of administration officials say they remain hopeful that Israel has no imminent plans to attack and may be willing to let the United States take the lead in any future military strike, which they say would not occur until next year at the earliest.
The visits, deliberately or not, also sandwiched in Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who was in Jerusalem two days before Mr. Panetta. Mr. Romney, who received a short briefing from the American ambassador in Israel but had no other substantive communication with the administration, appeared to take a harder line against Iran than President Obama has.
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At the Joint press conference with Joint Press Conference with Secretary Panetta and Minister Barak at the “Iron Dome” in Israel, Panetta unequivocally said:
It’s my responsibility as Secretary of Defense to provide the president with a full range of options, including military options, should diplomacy fail. President Obama has made clear that preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is a top national security priority by the United States and that all options — all options — are on the table.
During the Q&A session, Kevin Baron from Foreign Policy magazine asked:
“Both of you today have expressed the closeness of the military relationship, and, Mr. Secretary, you said there should be no doubt about the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security.
But there are doubts. And Governor Romney, representing large parts of the U.S. electorate, was just here saying that the U.S. should be doing more to protect Israel and more with its military to put pressure on Iran.
So for Mr. Barak, do you agree with those characterizations? Is the U.S. doing enough in your eyes or would you like to see more?
And since I’m pretty sure I know the answer from Mr. Panetta, why is the military not doing more? What are the reasons in your mind for — for holding the line like you have?”
Upon which Minister Barak answered:
“I noticed, I believe that you mentioned the candidate for presidency as well as the administration. And following the American code, I would not recommend on the different positions of competitors running — people for — for election in America.
I think that we have a long tradition of friendship with America running many administrations. I can count probably eight of them since Carter where I’ve been exposed to it personally and have seen it going deeper and deeper along the year, no matter which part of the — which side of the political aisle in America was in power.
But (inaudible) that the relationship now with regard to our security is extremely deep and strong. Of course we expect it to be continued by the next administration upon the American election results. And we — we strongly believe that it stems out of a deep background of shared values by our peoples and stems out from the very feeling of the American people. And I can witness here or bring my witness that it’s the same on this side of the Atlantic. We also feel the same.
And I think that we are extremely thankful to the administration and to Secretary Panetta for what they are doing now. And we keep looking and watching developments all around the area, and as the Secretary said, Israel is always seeing the very crucial issues of its security and future as something that ultimately the Israeli government and only the Israeli government has to make decisions upon.
But we are not blind. We — we are looking around. We watch all developments and try to predict most of the consequences. And of course taking into account the — the American views, the — the European views and the views of our neighborhood. But always (inaudible) to keep on and making sure that Iran will not turn nuclear. And when we say all the options are on the table, when the American’s say all the options are on the table, we mean it and I believe that Americans means — means it as well.”
And where Panetta followed up:
“I think — I think Minister Barak has said it. The United States and Israel have the strongest relationship when it comes to the military area that we have ever had. And that’s true in a number of areas. We — we continue to have very strong communications between the Defense Minister and I on almost every issue that is confronting this region, and beyond that, that is confronting the world. And we continue to have discussions not only with us, but between our military and the Israeli military.
We continue to have assistance, military aid that continues to be — and financing that has — that continues to be provided to the Israelis. We continue to strengthen their quality area in terms of their equipment to ensure that they always have a qualitative edge, and that — that is made clear by the fact that they’re purchasing the Joint Strike Fighter and the only country to be doing that in this region.
In addition to that, we’ve provided additional funding on Iron Dome and we will continue to provide funding for that so that Israel can develop its missile defenses. And in addition to that, we continue to have joint exercises between our militaries that — that strengthen both sides.
So this is — this is the strongest alliance that we have. They are — they are a friend. We are Israel’s friend. And we will continue to strengthen the military relationship, particularly at a time when we face so many threats abroad.”
For the rest of the transcript on the press conference, please click here
I don’t know what Mitt Romney promised — could promise — Israeli leaders during his private meetings with them or what substantive foreign policy and national security (Israel and U.S.) issues he discussed — could discuss — with them. Sadly, what I remember about his visit to Israel are his unfortunate “culture” comments when comparing the economies of Israel and Palestine.
Immediately following Romney’s visit, United States Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited Israel as part of his official five-day trip to meet and have substantive discussions on critical defense and national security issues with leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan.
Here are some highlights of those meetings and discussions — pretty much dominated by the Iranian nuclear program — as provided by the Department of Defense’s American Forces Press Service:
American Forces Press Service’s Jim Garamone:
Iranian nuclear ambitions dominated discussions between Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu here today.
The Israeli leader stated there is no greater challenge than stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“Everything must be done to keep Iran, the world’s most dangerous regime, from developing the world’s most dangerous weapons,” he said before his meeting with Panetta.
Panetta was direct and unequivocal in his reply to the prime minister. The United States, he said, “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Period.”
While both countries are united in that goal, they disagree on timing and tactics. Netanyahu said sanctions are having an effect on Iran, but are not working fast enough. “Neither sanctions nor diplomacy have yet had any impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” he said.
The sanctions, economic pressure and forceful statements, “have not convinced Iran that we are serious about stopping them,” the prime minister said.
“Right now, the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program,” he added. “This must change, and it must change quickly, because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”
Panetta said continued close defense cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli militaries is important because of the huge changes in the Middle East and North Africa in the past two years. In addition to Iran, the civil war in Syria is costing thousands of lives. Egypt has its first democratically elected president, and the country is moving to build the infrastructure to support democracy. Threats from terror groups — some supported by Iran — threaten not only Israel but the world, Panetta said.
In this time of change, the United States remains a firm friend and ally to Israel, Panetta said.
“I want you and the people of Israel to know a few things that have not and will not change,” he said. “The United States stands firmly with Israel and we have a rock solid commitment to the security of Israel and to the security of its citizens.”
During a visit to an “Iron Dome” anti-missile battery defending Ashkelon from missile attacks from Gaza, less than 10 miles away, Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke during a news conference of the threat Iran’s nuclear program poses.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak brief the press at an Iron Dome anti-missile site in Ashkelon, Israel, Aug. 1, 2012.
Panetta said the United States will not allow Iran to gain a nuclear capability. But although all options are available to stop this, he added, this does not mean that using the military option is imminent.
“We have to exhaust every option, every effort, before we resort to military action,” Panetta said. “The international community has applied very strong sanctions against [the Iranians]. We have ratcheted up those sanctions. It’s having an impact.”
The sanctions are biting, and the Iranians agreed to return to the so-called “P-5-plus-1” talks with the United States, Great Britain, China, Russia and Germany.
Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, and the international community wants the nation that sponsors Hamas and Hezbollah to stop its nuclear program and abide by international rules and requirements, Panetta said. “That is something we would work with them to continue,” he added.
But if Iranian leaders make the choice to continue the nuclear program, the secretary said, “we have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that this does not happen.”
The Israeli defense minister was even more blunt. “When we say all the options are on the table, and when the Americans say all the options are on the table, we mean it, and I believe the Americans mean it,” Barak said.
The Israelis believe time is running out for an Iranian decision and that there is little or no chance that Tehran will step away from the nuclear program, Barak said.
“It’s important to notice that while sanctions are taking place and diplomacy is taking place, it takes time,” he said. “And in the meantime, the Iranians are daily enriching uranium. We clearly have something to lose by this stretched time.”
Finally, on how the Iron Dome System “demonstrates U.S-Israeli partnership,” again Jim Garamone:
After passing through an orchard of fruit-laden apple trees and passing fields of corn and vegetables, it’s jarring to come across a rocket launcher.
But that’s the scene near this southern Israeli city.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited with Israeli air force personnel protecting Ashkelon from terrorist attacks. The city is less than 10 miles away from Gaza, and terrorists there have launched hundreds of missiles and mortar rounds into Israel.
The rocket launcher, radar and battle management and control module in this pasture are part of the Iron Dome network designed to track and shoot down missiles fired at Israeli cities.
This is a country constantly on its guard, even as regular workaday life continues. About 200 meters from the battery are apartment buildings with wash hanging off the balconies and a beautifully appointed playground. Farmers work in the fields, and cars whiz by on the Israeli version of an interstate. These are targets for the terrorists who use Gaza as a launching point.
The system has shot down scores of missiles that would have killed Israeli citizens since it was fielded in April 2011. During a joint news conference with Barak at the battery, Panetta said Iron Dome “has been a game changer for Israel’s security. It has saved Israeli lives.” Barak said it has a more than 80 percent success rate.
The battery also is a concrete example of how the U.S.-Israeli defense partnership works. The Israelis developed Iron Dome, and the United States has committed more than $205 million to fielding the system. Last week, President Barack Obama signed a law providing another $70 million to field more batteries this fiscal year. Panetta said his goal is to ensure Israel has the funding it needs in coming fiscal years to complete fielding the system.
But the defense relationship is more than just one system. Panetta said the defense relationship — based on shared values and goals — “is stronger than it has ever been before.”
The partnership between the two nations is more important today because of the security challenges arising from the region, the secretary said. Syria, Iran and the threats of terrorism and nuclear and missile proliferation are just some of the challenges facing the region and the world.
“Our ties with the United States have expanded in a range of areas including intelligence, high-tech and securing the qualitative military edge of Israel,” the Israeli defense minister said. “The defense relationship underpins greater and wider cooperation between the two countries.”
Another example of the U.S. commitment to Israel is Israel’s involvement in the joint strike fighter program, the secretary said.
“Israel is the only country in the Middle East participating in this program,” Panetta said. “This will ensure Israel’s air superiority for years to come.”
Photos: Department of Defense
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.