Iran General NewsIran looms over Gates visit to Israel

Iran looms over Gates visit to Israel

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ImageNew York Times: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is to be in Jerusalem on Monday for the first time in two and a half years to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in talks that a senior American military official said would be characterized by Israel’s growing anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program.

The New York Times

By ELISABETH BUMILLER
Published: July 26, 2009

ImageWASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is to be in Jerusalem on Monday for the first time in two and a half years to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in talks that a senior American military official said would be characterized by Israel’s growing anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program.

The official, who asked not to be named under Defense Department ground rules, said that the trip was part of a regular consultation and that Mr. Gates was not traveling to Israel “to roll out a map and do contingency planning for some strike on Iran.”

Israel has made it clear that it could strike the plants at the heart of Iran’s nuclear program, although it has agreed to the Obama administration’s policy of first trying to engage Iran in talks.

But the official, who was briefing reporters in advance of Mr. Gates’s trip, acknowledged that the Israelis did not think the diplomacy would work and that they were losing patience.

“Are they anxious?” said the military official, referring to the Israelis. “Yes, they’re anxious. But we’re not having regular conversations where they’re coming in and saying, ‘Stop your engagement now, bomb Iran tomorrow.’ ”

President Obama has given Iran until late September to accept an offer of talks to give up its nuclear ambitions, and until the end of the year to show some progress on the issue.

A Middle East analyst familiar with Israeli thinking, who also asked not to be named while speaking about the topic, said that the meetings were expected to be more about coordination and reassurance that the United States stood by Israel and that it was too soon to get into discussions of any military action.

The Obama administration has sent mixed messages on its views of an Israeli strike.

Top Pentagon officials, including Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said repeatedly that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “very destabilizing” to the region.

But this month, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said that the United States “cannot dictate” Israel’s decision on military action.

Two days later, Mr. Obama pulled back, telling CNN that the United States was “absolutely not” giving Israel its approval for a strike.

Both Israel and the United States estimate that Iran is within one to three years of developing a nuclear-weapons ability.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the co-author of “Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East,” said that Israel and the United States were not at odds on Iran, at least not in the current “intermission of a play” before decisions on a strike have to be made.

“A decision was made that it is better to have close U.S.-Israel consultations in assessing the situation in Iran than having a situation where Israel feels isolated,” Mr. Makovsky said. “In the context of isolation, Israel is more likely to strike out on its own.”

Mr. Gates will be part of a stream of American government officials visiting Israel in the next week. Among them are James L. Jones, the national security adviser; George J. Mitchell, the special envoy for the Middle East; and Dennis B. Ross, the Iran expert on the National Security Council staff and Mr. Makovsky’s co-author.

Senior military officials cast the timing of the trips as coincidental.

The visits come at a time of tension not only on Iran but during an unusual rift between the United States and Israel over Israeli construction in areas that the Palestinians hope to turn into a state. The Obama administration has called publicly on Israel to suspend the construction of new housing in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem, but Israeli officials say Mr. Obama is ignoring what they call clear understandings with the Bush administration that allowed them to build settlement housing within certain guidelines.

Military officials said Mr. Gates was unlikely to wade into the issue of settlements, which is generally the province of Mr. Mitchell and the State Department.

Mr. Gates is to leave Israel later on Monday for a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman.

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