The steady stream of US officials visiting Israel continues this week with the imminent tour of Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who said Sunday that he didn’t believe Israel had reached any decisions regarding its widely speculated plans to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran.
Speaking from Tunisia, at the start of a week-long tour of the Middle East and North Africa, the minister’s visit to Jerusalem heralds increased US commitment to defence cooperation with the Jewish State, after President Barack Obama signed a bill at the weekend pledging $70 million (€57 million) in US aid for further anti-missile batteries.
“We have achieved a level of defence cooperation that is unprecedented in our history,” Panetta said, “And my goal is to deepen that relationship even further.”
On the subject of Iran, Panetta spoke of Israel’s rights to “sovereignty” and protecting its own security but cautioned patience, insisting “we have developed a very close relationship with regards to dealing with threats in the region including dealing with Iran”.
US officials have made frequent visits to Israel throughout continued international diplomatic efforts with Iran, with the aim of keeping the Israeli leadership informed and in line with the western position on the dispute over its nuclear weapons programme. Panetta said with this communication in mind, “my view is that they have not made any decisions with regards to attacking Iran”.
His call for temperance on the Iran issue contrasts with the approach taken by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who on this weekend’s visit to Israel stressed that “we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself”.
“We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course,” he continued, adding that “it is right for America to stand” with Israel on the Iranian threat to its security.
In the last week, the Israeli government have increasingly hinted their patience might be wearing thin with Iran, with western leaders having reached a deadlock in diplomatic efforts with the Islamist regime. At a press conference following a meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council in Brussels last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned:
“We cannot negotiate forever. The time will come when negotiations must end and action must begin. We have been patient, we’re waiting, we’re anxiously monitoring talks but we also hope to see substantial results.”
On Wednesday the minister also met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, where he raised the issue of controversy regarding Tunisia’s apparent desire to include a clause in its constitution making normalised relations with Israel a criminal offence. According to a statement by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Lieberman asked Ashton for EU “intervention” in the matter on Israel’s behalf.
Panetta chose the North African country as the starting point for his tour of the region, after the US had lauded its democratic transition following last year’s Arab Spring and the popular uprising which overthrew long-term authoritarian leader Zine al-Abidine ben Ali.
The Defence Secretary spoke Sunday of growing concerns as to how Tunisia would handle the continued threat of al Qaeda and how to protect its borders. He also warned of the spiralling situation in Syria, as he called on the international community to unite “to bring the Assad regime down”.
However, he remained buoyant in his belief that increasingly desperate moves to hold on to power by Assad’s forces showed his authoritarian reign was faltering.
“What Assad has been doing to his own people and what he continues to do to his own people makes clear that his regime is coming to an end. It’s lost all legitimacy,” he said. “It’s no longer a question of whether he’s coming to an end, it’s when.”