Panetta: US, Israel relationship stronger than ever

US defense secretary awards Barak with public service honor; affirms commitment to Israel's security regarding Iran, Iron Dome.

Barak, Panetta hugging 370 (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni)
Barak, Panetta hugging 370
(photo credit: Ariel Hermoni)
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday the relationship between the United States and Israel is "stronger than any time in history."
Awarding Defense Minister Ehud Barak the highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award at the Pentagon, Panetta said the strong relationship between the countries was "based on our relationship and based on the assistance that we are providing."
Panetta added that the relationship is grounded on shared values and an "ironclad commitment" to Israel's security. He stated this topic was the focus of discussions between the defense ministers on Thursday.
Both ministers commented on the granting of Palestinian statehood at the UN, with Barak labeling the move as a "mistake."
Commenting on Syria, Panetta confirmed the US "non-lethal" assistance to the rebels in their attempt to topple President Bashar Assad. Barak added that Assad will "fall down," but its too early to know the consequences of a regime collapse.
On Iran, Barak reiterated his concept of a "zone of immunity," referring to an end-point of the Iranian nuclear program. When asked when the zone will occur, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland piped in to clarify that it "will happen during 2013."
Barak added that he is confident Iran is trying to go in the "footsteps of Pakistan, North Korea."
At the press conference, Panetta continued to praise Barak for his commitment to peace through his military and political career, stating: "few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on Israeli security and prosperity and, I have to say, on the US-Israeli relationship."
The US defense secretary praised the success of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, and pledged "strong" US commitment to the Dome for the future, reiterating that the US will provide $70 million in fiscal 2012 on top of the $205 million previously appropriated. When asked on the future budget question, Panetta responded that the US is "going through our 2014 budget requests."
"The events of the past month underscore something that the Israeli prime minister and I have said, that Iron Dome does not start wars; it helps prevent wars," Panetta said.
Bestowing Barak with the award, Panetta complimented him as a man of peace, saying, "Minister Barak is a battle-hardened warrior. And like so many great military leaders, he is fundamentally a man of peace, because he's seen war firsthand. He recognizes that we must take every possible step to try to avoid war."
For his part, Barak thanked Panetta for his "open door" policy when it came to discussing issues of defense between Israel and the US.
Barak added that although Israel seeks peace, it will "always be ready with the pointing finger." Panetta responded by finding the words for Barak, detailing it as a "trigger finger."
Thanking Panetta and the US assistance on the Iron Dome, Barak presented him with a small Iron Dome as a memento of their close friendship.