Defense Secretary Reaffirms U.S. Commitment to Israel

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2011 — Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta empha­sized here tonight that despite upheaval in the Mid­dle East, the Unit­ed States remains com­mit­ted to safe­guard­ing Israel.

The sec­re­tary spoke at the open­ing ses­sion of the 2011 Saban Forum, an annu­al con­fer­ence of U.S. and Israeli offi­cials and pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

“In this time of under­stand­able anx­i­ety, I would like to under­score one thing that has stayed con­stant over the past three years of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion: the deter­mi­na­tion of the Unit­ed States to safe­guard Israel’s secu­ri­ty,” he said. “And that com­mit­ment will not change.”

Panet­ta cit­ed mul­ti­ple rea­sons Israel could depend on the Unit­ed States to con­tin­ue its staunch com­mit­ment to the country’s secu­ri­ty.

“I want to be clear,” he said, “that Israel can count on three endur­ing pil­lars of U.S. pol­i­cy in the region, all of which con­tribute direct­ly to the safe­ty and pros­per­i­ty of the Israeli peo­ple: first, our unshake­able com­mit­ment to Israel’s secu­ri­ty, sec­ond, our broad­er com­mit­ment to region­al sta­bil­i­ty, and third, our deter­mi­na­tion to pre­vent Iran from acquir­ing nuclear weapons.”

The defense sec­re­tary cit­ed peri­ods of “great progress” and “great chal­lenge and uncer­tain­ty” for Israel and U.S. secu­ri­ty inter­ests over the course of his career.

“Yet noth­ing I have seen com­pares to the dra­mat­ic events of the past year — one of change, one of promise, one of uncer­tain­ty, [and] one of tur­moil,” he said. “A year, we hope, of Arab awak­en­ing, a year of set­back for al-Qai­da, and a year, we believe, of frus­tra­tion for Iran.”

Entrenched lead­ers were over­thrown by peace­ful protest in Tunisia and Egypt, and by force in Libya, he not­ed.

“In Yemen, Pres­i­dent [Ali Abdul­lah] Saleh has agreed to step down, which we believe is a very pos­i­tive devel­op­ment,” Panet­ta said. “And yet the ter­ror­ist threats from Yemen still per­sist, and extrem­ists are seek­ing to gain a foothold across the region.”

Despite some pos­i­tive trends, Panet­ta said, dark­er trends have emerged, such as the actions of what he called the “dis­cred­it­ed” regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad in Syr­ia.

“I want to con­demn in the strongest pos­si­ble terms the Assad regime’s mur­der and tor­ture of chil­dren that the U.N. report­ed this week in Gene­va,” he said. “Assad’s con­duct has deserved­ly brought scorn, pres­sure and pun­ish­ing sanc­tions not just by the Unit­ed States and Europe, but now by the Arab League and Turkey as well.”

Panet­ta empha­sized that Iran remains a threat to the region and “must ulti­mate­ly real­ize that its quest for nuclear weapons will make it less — not more — secure.”

“Iran’s con­tin­ued dri­ve to devel­op nuclear capa­bil­i­ties, includ­ing trou­bling enrich­ment activ­i­ties and past work on weaponiza­tion that has now been doc­u­ment­ed by the IAEA, and its con­tin­ued sup­port to groups like Hezbol­lah, Hamas, and oth­er ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions, make clear that the regime in Tehran remains a very grave threat to all of us,” he said.

The Unit­ed States has firm prin­ci­ples, not rhetor­i­cal assur­ances, that illus­trate its com­mit­ment to safe­guard­ing Israel, Panet­ta said.

“First, this admin­is­tra­tion has pur­sued and achieved unprece­dent­ed lev­els of defense coop­er­a­tion with Israel to back up our unshake­able com­mit­ment to Israel’s secu­ri­ty,” he said. “Next year, the U.S. armed forces and the [Israeli defense forces] will con­duct the largest joint exer­cise in the his­to­ry of that part­ner­ship, enhanc­ing the abil­i­ty of our mil­i­taries to oper­ate togeth­er and also test­ing our new bal­lis­tic mis­sile and rock­et defense capa­bil­i­ties.”

Those new capa­bil­i­ties, he added, are a prod­uct of this “unprece­dent­ed defense coop­er­a­tion.”

“We are espe­cial­ly proud that, above and beyond the annu­al for­eign mil­i­tary financ­ing we pro­vide Israel, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion has pro­vid­ed more than $200 mil­lion for the Iron Dome rock­et defense sys­tem — sup­port that recent­ly enabled the field­ing of a third bat­tery,” he said. “This sys­tem has already saved the lives of Israeli civil­ians fac­ing rock­et bar­rages from Gaza.”

The defense sec­re­tary said the joint efforts on these defense capa­bil­i­ties are only one part of the core U.S. com­mit­ment in main­tain­ing Israel’s qual­i­ta­tive mil­i­tary edge.

“As just one exam­ple, the Unit­ed States will ensure that Israel con­tin­ues to enjoy unques­tioned air supe­ri­or­i­ty by deliv­er­ing to [them] the advanced fifth-gen­er­a­tion fight­er air­craft, the F‑35 joint strike fight­er,” he said.

But Panet­ta not­ed Israel’s secu­ri­ty can­not be achieved by mil­i­tary arse­nal alone, but also depends on the region’s sta­bil­i­ty, “includ­ing efforts to achieve peace with Pales­tini­ans.”

“Ulti­mate­ly, the dream of a secure and pros­per­ous Jew­ish and demo­c­ra­t­ic Israel can only be achieved through two states liv­ing side by side in peace and secu­ri­ty,” he said. “With full con­fi­dence that the Unit­ed States is will­ing and capa­ble of ensur­ing Israel can safe­guard its secu­ri­ty as it takes the risks need­ed to pur­sue peace, now is the time for Israel to take bold action and to move towards a nego­ti­at­ed two-state solu­tion.”

The defense sec­re­tary acknowl­edged peace some­times requires risks as he reaf­firmed the Unit­ed States’ com­mit­ment.

“All Israelis should know that the Unit­ed States will always stand behind their coun­try, pro­vid­ing a secure safe­ty net as it takes those nec­es­sary risks,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)