'International community needs to cooperate on Iran'

US Secretary of Defense Panetta warns Israel of its growing isolation, urges bold action for peace, says Pollard will not be released

Ehud Barak and US SecDef Leon Panetta 311 (photo credit: Ariel Harmony / Defense Ministry)
Ehud Barak and US SecDef Leon Panetta 311
(photo credit: Ariel Harmony / Defense Ministry)
Warning that Israel is becoming growingly isolated in the Middle East, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta hinted on Monday he expected Israel to refrain from taking unilateral action against Iran and instead needs to work together with the US and other countries in the region.
Panetta arrived in Israel on Monday for 24 hours – his first visit as secretary of defense – during which he met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Panetta is scheduled to fly to Cairo on Tuesday amid media reports that he will be picking up Ilan Grapel – an alleged Israeli spy with dual Israeli-US citizenship – who was arrested in June.
Before arriving in Israel, Panetta told reporters that Israel was growingly isolated and that US security commitments should enable it to take “risks for peace.” At a press conference Monday afternoon with Barak, Panetta said Israel needed to coordinate its Iran policy with the international community.
Netanyahu, who met with Panetta for some 90 minutes, seemed to allude to these comments in a statement he made before the meeting.
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“You’re coming to the Middle East at a time when it’s undergoing a tremendous convulsion,” Netanyahu said.
“Probably nothing on this scale happened since the end of World War I, and during this time it’s particularly important to strengthen the security alliance between Israel and the United States.”
Netanyahu said that strengthening the Israeli-US alliance and cooperation was important for Israel’s security and for peace.
Panetta, who said he has known Netanyahu through various chapters of their lives, going back to when he was former president Bill Clinton’s chief-of-staff, said “The most important thing I bring with me is the continuing commitment to the security of Israel. We have been strong allies, we have been strong partners. We have always made a commitment to do everything we can to support the security of Israel and as the secretary of defense, I intend to continue that commitment.”
Panetta said it was important to “say to this region that when it comes to the difficult issues we face we stand together to try to confront our difficult and common challenges.”
At a press conference Monday afternoon with Barak, Panetta said Israel needed to coordinate its Iran policy with the international community.
As reported last week in The Jerusalem Post, Panetta’s visit to Israel was focused on Iran, and he was expected to seek assurances that Israel will not take unilateral military action against Iran. In 2009, Panetta was also dispatched to Israel on a similar mission during his term as director of the CIA.
Panetta’s visit to Israel on Monday was considered particularly important considering that he and Barak had met just a few weeks earlier at the Pentagon, in what was then their second meeting since Panetta became the US defense chief over the summer.
“We are very concerned [about Iran] and the best approach for dealing with this threat is for all of us to make it clear to them that they cannot proceed on the path that they are on,” Panetta said. “We will work together to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they do not represent a threat to this region and it depends on countries working together.”
The combination of Panetta’s warning that Israel is “growingly isolated” and his calls for Israel to “work together” were understood within the government as carrying an underlying message that since Israel can only really rely on the US, it will not be able to surprise it with unilateral military action against Iran.
“By saying that we are isolated is a different way of saying that the only country we can really depend on is the US,” one government official explained.
Panetta also addressed a decision by Congress to withhold $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority, saying it was against the Obama administration’s position.
“The administration opposes holding these funds from the Palestinians,” he said, adding that the funds have helped the Palestinian Authority build better security, which helps the Palestinians as well as Israel.
“This is a critical time and it is not a time to withhold those funds.”
Regarding reports that he will be bringing Grapel back with him to the US, Panetta said that he could not elaborate but that the administration has made its concerns known to the transitional military government in Egypt.
“I cannot say anything about the specifics about that,” he said. “We’ve made our concerns known to the Egyptians about holding that individual.”
Asked to explain why the US refuses to release Jonathan Pollard, Panetta said that it was a “sensitive issue” and that there was a “great deal of opposition” to his release in the United States.
“Pollard has been a sensitive issue for a long time. There is a great deal of opposition to the release of Pollard that goes back to the fact that he was convicted as a spy.” For that reason, Panetta said, “the president has indicated that the position of the US is for him not to be released.”
Moving to the stalled peace process, Panetta called for “bold action” from both sides to achieve peace.
“I want to emphasize that there is a need, and an opportunity, for bold action on both sides to move toward a negotiated two-state solution. There is no alternative to negotiations,” Panetta.