Reuters: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Israel on Wednesday to bolster a strategic alliance in the face of Iran’s nuclear program and lay to rest spats over Israeli arms sales to China dating back seven years. By Andrew Gray
TEL AVIV (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Israel on Wednesday to bolster a strategic alliance in the face of Iran’s nuclear program and lay to rest spats over Israeli arms sales to China dating back seven years.
The last Pentagon chief to come to Israel, which gets more than $2 billion in annual U.S. defense aid, was William Cohen in 1999 — shortly before Washington quashed a lucrative Israeli radar deal with China over its concern for the safety of Taiwan.
More recently, Israel reshuffled senior Defense Ministry staff and pledged to tighten arms-export regulations after Pentagon officials complained about maintenance work on combat drones that Israel had provided to the Asian superpower.
“The fact that I have come here in the end of my fourth month as secretary illustrates the importance that I attach to our relationship with Israel,” Gates said at a joint press conference with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
He said he had briefed Peretz on the Iraqi insurgency, Syria and Iran, whose nuclear program is regarded by both the United States and Israel as a bid to build bombs. Tehran denies it.
Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, has hinted it could take pre-emptive military action against its arch-foe — something that would likely need U.S. acquiescence but risk alienating America’s Arab allies.
Gates, who is to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday, voiced confidence in U.N. Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions to strip Iran of bomb-making technologies.
“We (I and Peretz) agreed it was important to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem through diplomacy, which appears to be working,” Gates said.
Peretz sounded more circumspect.
“The diplomatic track (against Iran) is preferable and should be allow to run its course,” he said. “But it is still not possible to remove other options from our table.”
A senior Peretz aide said the Jewish state saw symbolic as well as strategic value to Gates’s two-day visit. The U.S. secretary of state visited Jordan and Egypt earlier this week.
“The importance here is in the fact it is happening. Relations with the Pentagon have not been great in recent years, so we see this as an opportunity to upgrade our ties,” the aide told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The New York Times reported this month that Israeli objections had stalled a major sale of U.S. weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other friendly Gulf states.
The United States is keen to reassure Sunni Arab allies in the Middle East, anxious that Shi’ite-dominated Iran is gaining influence in the region, that Washington will stand by them.
Asked about the Saudi issue, Peretz said the United States was committed to preserving Israel’s regional military superiority.
“The (Israeli) Defense Ministry and the (U.S.) Defense Department find themselves in a very important place that involves … understandings about the responses that we are capable of providing (to perceived threats),” Peretz said.