US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates rebuked those who have questioned the merits of the US-Israel relationship. He also called for multilateralism on Iran, speaking during an awards ceremony Monday evening.
"It was right to stand by Israel during its darkest hours, when it fought for its very survival," he told the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs after receiving its Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson Distinguished Service Award.
"And today, with the new threats and challenges that our nation faces in the region, it is even more important to maintain and bolster our partnership," he said.
Gates prefaced his remarks by noting the long-standing debate about America's proper relationship to Israel. That debate has intensified recently as respected foreign policy thinkers have called for rethinking those ties. In particular, Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer released a controversial book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, last month suggesting American foreign policy has been hijacked by Israeli interests.
But Gates, who did not refer to the book, said that the basis of American support of Israel can be best summarized by the words president Lyndon Johnson used when asked the reason for this backing: "Because it's right."
In his acceptance speech, Gates pointed to shared concerns on Iran and extremist forces. Dealing with Teheran, he said, required international consensus.
"With a government of this nature, only a united front of nations will be able to exert enough pressure to make Iran abandon its nuclear aspirations," he said, stressing that the United States well understands the nature of the threat.
"Our allies must work together on robust, far-reaching and strongly enforced economic sanctions," he said. "We must exert pressure in the diplomatic and political arenas as well. And as the president has said, we must also keep all options on the table."
Gates also warned of the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, and rejected assertions that the American engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan had left the country weakened.
"Restraint should never be confused with weakness," he said.
Gates noted his many visits to Israel, which began 30 years ago when he served with the National Security Council in the White House and at the CIA. He called his first trip to Israel "one of the most profoundly religious experiences of my life."
Gates was the 25th recipient of the annual Jackson award. Previous honorees include US Vice President Dick Cheney who, along with his boss US President George W. Bush, submitted a letter of congratulations that was read at Monday night's event.