SEC. GATES: Thank you for being here.
I'm pleased once again to welcome my friend Defense Minister Barak to Washington. Ehud and I have been meeting for over 20 years in different roles, and it's always good to see him.
Today, Minister Barak and I discussed a range of important defense issues, both in our bilateral defense relationship and around the region. I appreciate, as always, his candor and forthrightness, and I look forward to continuing our discussions over the coming months.
As President Obama has affirmed, the United States commitment to Israel's security is unshakable, and our defense relationship is stronger than ever, to the mutual benefit of both nations. The United States and our ally Israel share many of the same security challenges, from combating terrorism to confronting the threat posed by Iran's nuclear-weapons program.
For years, the United States and Israel have worked together to prepare our armed forces to meet these and other challenges, a recent major example being the Juniper Cobra joint exercise held last October. Our work together on missile-defense technology is ongoing, and the United States will continue to ensure that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge.
Again, I thank Minister Barak for being with us today and invite him to make a few remarks before we take a couple of questions.
MIN. BARAK: Thank you, Secretary Gates. I'm always glad to be here. Thank you for the hospitality and for the interesting, important exchanges we could have.
The special relationship between Israel and the United States is unbreakable, built on mutual respect and shared values. This bond is most poignantly manifested by the unmatched support and cooperation that the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and the Israeli minister of defense share with the United States military and the Department of Defense.
In my conversation with Secretary Gates, we evaluated the threats and security challenges that the United States and Israel face.
I should tell you, we feel that we are living at the focal point of the main challenges that the free world is facing now: violent extremism accompanied by terror, the proliferation of nuclear military technologies and rogue and failed states.
And in the way that the individual cannot choose his parents, nations cannot choose their neighbors. We are living in an extremely tough neighborhood. But we are there to stay. And we will never sway or blink at the challenges.
And we are glad and proud to be supported by the American defense establishment and the American administration. It is keeping or standing as an outpost for these values. These threats have broad implications, not only to Israeli security but to the entire region's security and the very -- any conceivable world order.
The purpose of my meetings with Secretary Gates and various U.S. administration officials is to provide diverse response to all the lurking challenges and threats and to therefore stress the strengthening and equipping of the IDF.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Congress and the president, President Obama, for American support for the security of the State of Israel. Thank you very much.
Q A question for both of you, please.
Secretary Gates, do you think the United States has adequate planning, forethought and strategies in place to deal with the approaching prospect of a nuclear Iran?
And for Minister Barak, are you satisfied with the current United States approach to that threat? Or should it move to more active consideration of a military strike?
SEC. GATES: I'm very satisfied -- satisfied with the planning process both within this building and in the interagency. We spend a lot of time on Iran, and we'll continue to do so.
MIN. BARAK: I think that the effort of the Iranians to turn nuclear is a major challenge to -- not just to Israel, but basically to any conceivable world order. If they are allowed to turn nuclear, it will be the end of any nonproliferation regime. It can change the landscape not just of the Middle East.
So we think that they should be blocked. And I think that the time is clearly, at this stage, time for sanctions and diplomacy. We expect the sanctions to be effective and to be limited in time so we will be able to judge to whether -- what kind of results stem from the sanctions regime.
Q Are you satisfied with the current United States --
MIN. BARAK: I think that the United States is doing the right thing. The United States is leader of the world and it's the only power that can mobilize so many members of the international community, than the U.N., than probably the Europeans, to establish the most effective possible sanctions regime. But of course, it's only time will tell to what extent they are really effective.
SEC. GATES: Ehud, do you want to call on somebody?
MIN. BARAK: Gil, please.
Q Thank you. Secretary Gates and Minister Barak, before my question, please, if you can just explain us, why do you host this press availability now? It's the first time in your term that you are hosting such a press availability. Is it because this administration would like to portray a feeling of business as usual with the Israeli government when the general perception, as you well know, is that business is not so usual between Israel and the United States right now?
And I'll also be happy to get both of you to understand this -- this is the real perception of the Pentagon -- that, like General Petraeus suggested, that the United States is paying a price with the life of American soldiers when Israel is not reaching peace with the Palestinians. I'll be happy to get an --
MIN. BARAK: Gil, we have noticed your frustration with the absence of such meetings in the past, so we tried to correct it for -- (Soft laughter.)
SEC. GATES: (Chuckles.) Never too late for a good idea. (Soft laughter.)
MIN. BARAK: (Chuckles.) As -- I think -- I think that we are working together to face the same challenges. And we feel that we contribute, and the Americans are clearly sending their youngsters to the toughest corners of the Middle East to fight at the same failing states and the terrorisms, and I believe that we are basically doing the right thing.
SEC. GATES: Let me just address the second point of -- that you made.
First of all, General Petraeus did not say that the lack of progress in the peace process is costing American lives. And no one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.
What we do believe is that the -- heretofore, the lack of progress in the peace process has provided political ammunition to our adversaries in the Middle East and in the region, and that progress in this arena will enable us not only to perhaps get others to support the peace process, but also support us in our efforts to try and impose effective sanctions against Iran.
Q Yes. First of all, on Syria, what did Syria transfer to Hezbollah that has sparked so much concern? Was it -- was it Scuds -- (off mike)?
MIN. BARAK: We feel that the Syrians keep backing the Hezbollah in the -- in a damaging way, that they convey to the Hezbollah weapons systems that can turn or disrupt the very delicate balance in Lebanon. And those balance-disrupting weapons systems, including the rockets or missiles, are considered to be a threat to the stability of the region.
We do not intend to provoke any kind of a major collision in Lebanon or vis-a-vis Syria, as it were mentioned, but we are watching closely these developments and think that they do not contribute to the stability in the region.
SEC. GATES: I would just say that, from our vantage point, Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rockets and missiles of ever- increasing capability.
And we are at a point now when Hezbollah -- where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world. And this is obviously destabilizing for the whole region, and so we're watching it very carefully.
MIN. BARAK: Ben.
Q Yeah, I had a following question. There is a drilling today. There was a drilling -- Syrian-Turk drilling. Can you comment about it, about what the influence of -- about Israel? Israel used to make such drillings with Turkey. Now the information that we know is shifting to the Syrian maybe.
MIN. BARAK: Well, we're moving toward full democracy in all our neighborhood, so we start with freedom of drilling -- (soft laughter) -- and we move towards freedom of all other rights.
I don't think that we have to comment about drills in neighboring countries. We -- (chuckles) -- Israel is strong and self-confident, and I believe Israel is so strong that in spite of the neighborhood -- I've already mentioned, where there is no mercy for the weak and no second opportunity for those who cannot protect themselves -- we are strong enough to be able to afford daring attempts at negotiating with all our neighbors in order to put an end to the need for these drillings against each other.
I believe that we have to focus from a position of strength and self-confidence, to focus on how to change reality from its very foundations and turned into effective and conclusive, sincere negotiations with the Palestinians and later on with the rest of our neighbors.
SEC. GATES: Thank you all.
MIN. BARAK: Thank you.
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