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)