US Defense Secretary Robert Gates will attempt to allay Israeli fears during his short trip to Israel on Wednesday regarding the looming Iranian nuclear threat as well as the consequences of an American withdrawal from Iraq.
Gates will land at Ben-Gurion International Airport Wednesday afternoon as the first US defense chief to visit Israel in close to eight years, since William Cohen - defense secretary under president Bill Clinton - visited the country in November 2000.
Gates, who will be arriving in Israel together with his delegation from Egypt, will be transported to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, where he will meet with Defense Minister Amir Peretz. The two met last month in Washington, DC and will hold a joint press conference following their meeting. On Thursday, he will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Defense officials attributed a great deal of importance to Gates's visit, which they said signified that the Pentagon had resolved a crisis that erupted with the Israeli Defense Ministry in 2004 after Israel Aircraft Industries repaired a number of Chinese drones. Due to the crisis, Israel was removed from a program for the development of the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35.
"Peretz's visit last month and Gates's visit this week indicate that the crisis is over and things are back to the way they used to be," a senior defense official said.
Gates will also try to gain Israeli support for the sale of advanced US military platforms to Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reported last week that the deal had been put on hold due to Israeli opposition and the issue is set to come up in talks with Peretz, according to American and Israeli officials. The Bush administration is determined to push forward with the sale, which is part of an effort to balance the powers in the region in the face of Iran's race to obtain nuclear weapons.
Gates's visit to Israel is part of a tour of the Middle East. He will be coming to Israel after already visiting Jordan. Senior American military officials said Monday that Gates planned to urge the US's Middle Eastern allies to bolster the fledgling Iraqi government and offset the Iranian influence there.
Israeli defense officials said Peretz would discuss the recent developments on the Palestinian front with Gates and the two would talk about the Iranian nuclear threat and ways to stop the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons. Gates, a former CIA director, will also explain American policy concerning Iraq and attempt to relieve Israeli concerns regarding the possibility that US troops will withdraw and leave the country at conflict, a move that Israel believes could lead to regional war.
Last month, Olmert spoke out strongly against a rapid American exit from Iraq, saying "Those who are concerned for Israel's security, for the security of the Gulf States and for the stability of the entire Middle East should recognize the need for American success in Iraq and a responsible exit."
Gates's visit to the region comes as violence spiked in Iraq in recent days, causing some to doubt the progress of the ongoing US military buildup there. Three of the five brigades ordered into the country by President George W. Bush to help quell the violence in Baghdad have arrived in Iraq.
Gates will also be looking for regional leaders to maintain their position that Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, as is Iran's continued support for Hizbullah, the official said.
"Jordan has been a strong ally of the United States and I look forward to discussing with the king about how we can contribute to his efforts and how the Jordanians can contribute to ours," Gates told reporters on the plane en route to Amman. "Not just in Iraq, but Lebanon and the Israel-Palestinian peace process."
AP contributed to this report.