US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday tried to ease Israeli concerns about a planned American weapons sale to Arab allies in the Gulf, saying the US remained committed to preserving Israel's military edge over its neighbors. Gates also said his 24-hour trip to Israel did not include any discussions on taking military action against Iran. He reiterated his belief that diplomacy was the best course of action for halting Iran's nuclear program. Israeli officials have objected to US plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Gulf states, fearing it would damage Israel's deterrent capabilities in the Middle East. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Washington had delayed the arms sale package because of the Israeli objections.
Gates won't discuss military action against Iran
Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv before his departure, Gates said he had urged Israeli leaders to look at the deal in terms of the "overall strategic environment" and stressed that Israel's neighbors had other alternatives for purchasing arms.
"I'm confident that the Russians would be very happy to sell weapons to countries in the region," he said. Gates affirmed that the US would continue to help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge, but did not say whether the Saudi deal would go through.
Gates also met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday, where the issue of Iran's nuclear program was raised.
Livni said Iran was a threat not only to Israel, but to moderate Arab nations in the Middle East.
"The free world is tested by the countries under threat from Iran, especially its Arab and Muslim neighbors. Every hesitation is interpreted as weakness and is liable to lead to an effort to appease Iran," Livni said. "Only the world's resolve can preserve the 'moderate camp.'"
Gates said both nations agreed that diplomacy - not military action - was the proper course of action for the time being. "The Israelis are comfortable with letting the diplomatic effort go forward. They did not raise that (military option)," he said.
Livni also said the Arab League must show flexibility, and called on Arab League nations to support Israeli proposals in order to make things easier for the Palestinians.
"The subject of the Palestinians must and can make progress in a two-sided track," she said during a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, adding that "Israel, for its part, is of course open to dialogue."
Livni noted that there were "security issues that are relevant from Israel's perspective and it will be necessary to confirm that a future Palestinian state will not turn into a hotbed of terror."
The foreign minister also addressed the issue of Iran, which she termed the "neighborhood bully," saying that if the international community did not show determination on the Iranian nuclear threat, those threatened by Teheran would see this as weakness, and others would try to team up with the Iranians.
The foreign minister also said that the smuggling of weapons from Sinai into the Gaza Strip was "Lebanonizing" Gaza and would have impact on possible of future deals.
Earlier, Gates met Olmert at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. The two discussed the Iranian nuclear program, officials said, pushing forward with efforts to halt what they say was Teheran's pursuit of atomic weapons.
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said the Iranian issue came up during the one-hour meeting Thursday, along with talks about Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
"It was a fine, positive conversation. They talked about regional aspects, strengthening defense cooperation with the United States," she said. She declined to elaborate.
Following the meeting, Olmert reiterated that Israel had no intention of attacking Syria, and that the two countries were not interested in a confrontation.
Earlier, Gates said diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff with Iran were working and should be allowed a chance to succeed. At a news conference Wednesday, Gates said many nations were "united in telling Iran what it needs to do with respect to its nuclear program."
His words appeared aimed at defusing suggestions in Israel and the US that the Pentagon is moving toward a strike against Iran.
The Israeli concerns have been heightened by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for Israel's destruction. Olmert has never ruled out taking military action, but he has repeatedly said he would prefer a diplomatic solution.
The United States and its allies have led efforts to pass two UN Security Council resolutions punishing Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment. That process can be used to develop nuclear weapons.
"We agreed it was important to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem through diplomacy, which appears to be working," Gates said at Wednesday's news conference with Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
"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.
At the same time, Gates confirmed the US commitment to Israel, noting that he was the first Pentagon chief to visit country in eight years.
"I think the fact that I have come here in the end of my fourth month as secretary illustrates the importance that I attach to our relationship with Israel," he said.
Before their meeting Thursday, Olmert said he was "very proud and grateful" for the visit. "It gives us an opportunity to speak to the most powerful man in the defense establishment in the United States of America, which is extremely important to us."
Gates also visited Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial, before departing. At the memorial, he visited the Hall of Remembrance, rekindled the eternal flame and laid a wreath. He also stopped at the children's memorial, in which the names of the 1.5 million children killed by the Nazis are read.
Gates said he felt it was important "to pay my respects" to the 6 million Jews who died in the Nazi genocide.
Gates is on his third trip to the region as defense secretary.