Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday tried to ease Israeli concerns about a planned American weapons sale to Gulf Arab allies, saying the United States remains committed to preserving Israel’s military edge over its neighbors.
Gates also said his 24-hour trip to Israel did not include any discussions on taking military action against Iran. He reiterated his belief that diplomacy is the best course of action for halting Iran’s nuclear program.
Israeli officials have objected to U.S. plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Gulf states, fearing it would damage Israel’s deterrent capabilities in the Middle East. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Washington has delayed the arms sale package because of the Israeli objections.
‘Overall strategic environment’
Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv before his departure, Gates said he had urged Israeli leaders to look at the deal in terms of the “overall strategic environment” and stressed that Israel’s neighbors have other alternatives for purchasing arms.
“I’m confident that the Russians would be very happy to sell weapons to countries in the region,” he said. Gates said he affirmed the United States will continue to help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge, but did not say whether the Saudi deal would go through.
Israel is worried about the transfer of advanced weaponry to Arab countries, even to moderate countries like Saudi Arabia.
In particular, it objects to the planned sale of advanced air systems that would vastly upgrade the striking ability of Saudi warplanes, some of which could be stationed just several hundred miles from Israeli airspace. The U.S. has been selling Israel such weapons since the 1990s.
Countering Iran's influence
The New York Times said the deal is meant to counter Iranian influence in the region.
Iran was high on the agenda during Gates’ 24-hour visit to Israel, the third stop on a swing through the Middle East. The topic was raised during his meetings Thursday with both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
The United States and Israel accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons — a charge Tehran denies.
The Israeli concerns have been heightened by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction. Olmert has never ruled out taking military action, but he has repeatedly said he would prefer a diplomatic solution.
Livni said Iran is a threat not only to Israel, but to moderate Arab states in the Middle East.
“The free world is tested by the countries under threat from Iran, especially its Arab and Muslim neighbors. Every hesitation is interpreted as weakness and is liable to lead to an effort to appease Iran,” Livni said. “Only the world’s resolve can preserve the ’moderate camp.”’
Gates said both nations agreed that diplomacy — not military action — is the proper course of action for the time being. “The Israelis are comfortable with letting the diplomatic effort go forward. They did not raise that (military option),” he said.
Gates: Pressure is 'working'
On Wednesday, Gates said the international diplomatic pressure on Iran is “working” and should be given a chance to succeed.
His words appeared to be aimed at diffusing suggestions in Israel and the United States that the Pentagon is moving toward a strike against Iran.
The United States and its allies have led efforts to pass two U.N. Security Council resolutions punishing Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment. That process can be used to develop nuclear weapons.
Gates’ visit was the first by a Pentagon chief to Israel in eight years.
Olmert said he was “very proud and grateful” for the visit. “It gives us an opportunity to speak to the most powerful man in the defense establishment in the United States of America, which is extremely important to us.”
Gates also visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, before departing. At the memorial, he visited the Hall of Remembrance, rekindled the eternal flame and laid a wreath. He also stopped at the children’s memorial, in which the names of the 1.5 million children killed by the Nazis are read.
Gates said he felt it was important “to pay my respects” to the 6 million Jews who died in the Nazi genocide.
Gates was on his third trip to the region as defense secretary.