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Defense Ministry officials walked away slightly disappointed from a round of meetings with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday night, saying he refused to discuss nondiplomatic options on the Iranian nuclear threat.
Gates is the first US defense secretary to visit in close to eight years, when William Cohen - defense chief under president Bill Clinton - came in 2000.
Gates arrived on Wednesday afternoon and headed straight to the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv for talks with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, followed by a reception at the Herzliya home of US Ambassador Richard Jones.
On Thursday, Gates will visit Yad Vashem and meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
According to officials, Peretz tried to push Gates to strategize on the Iranian threat and to discuss nondiplomatic alternatives, including a military option. Gates, officials said, stuck to the line he followed at a press conference the two held, that diplomatic efforts against Iran were "working."
His comments followed an announcement by Iran last week that it would begin enriching uranium at an industrial level, despite sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.
"The international community is united in telling Iran what it needs to do with respect to its nuclear program," he said. "These things don't work overnight, but it seems to me clearly the preferable course to keep our focus on the diplomatic initiatives, and particularly because of the united front of the international community at this point," Gates said.
In response, Peretz told the defense secretary that 2007 was a "critical" year for stopping Iran diplomatically but that if that failed other options would need to be considered. "Iran is a threat, not only to Israel, but to the entire world," Peretz said. "Iran denies the Holocaust and we are confident that America will not stand by idly."
Gates held two meetings with Peretz, one in a large forum that included IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin and OC Planning Branch Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan. The officers did most of the talking and presented Gates with a number of classified intelligence briefings on Iran's nuclear development as well as on Syrian weapons smuggling to Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Slamming Syria, Gates said he was concerned with the weapons smuggling and the Damascus's involvement in Iraq. "The Syrian activities both in allowing suicide bombers to cross their borders into Iraq where they kill Iraqis and coalition partners and their allowing the resupply of Hizbullah in Lebanon and a variety of other activities are of great concern to us," he said.
According to officials who participated in the meetings, Gates came to Israel more to "listen than to be heard."
"The US is busy formulating its strategy regarding Iraq and he wanted to hear how we understood the instability there and how it would affect us," an official said, adding that the assumption within the Israeli defense establishment was that the US armed forces would pull out of Iraq unilaterally and in one wave, not gradually.
Gates has already visited Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia during his Middle East tour. Earlier Wednesday in Cairo, Gates said failure in Iraq would unleash sectarian strife and extremism and would be felt first in the region.
Speaking to a US Chamber of Commerce luncheon on the third day of his Middle East voyage, Gates exhorted Arab countries to use their influence to dampen the insurgency and encourage political reconciliation in Iraq.
"Whatever disagreements we might have over how we got to this point in Iraq, the consequences of a failed state in Iraq - of chaos there - will adversely impact the security and prosperity of every nation in the Middle East and Gulf region," Gates said.
He warned that while some who disagree with the war may be cheering for failure in Iraq, "these sentiments are dangerously shortsighted and self-destructive." The initial effects of failure, he said, will first be felt in Middle East capitals and communities, "well before they are felt in Washington or New York."
AP contributed to this report.