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Media Availability with Secretary Panetta en route to Israel

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
October 02, 2011

                 SEC. PANETTA:  All right.  What I’d like to do is give you a little preview of the trip that we’re going on.  I think I just marked my third month as secretary of defense and as you know, the first trip I took was to go to the war zone.  In this trip, the main purpose is to try to reaffirm our security relationship with important allies and with important partnerships that we have in that part of the world.  

                The other part of this obviously is to attend the NATO ministerial that we have in Brussels and to participate in my first conference with my NATO partners as well.  

                On Israel, the important thing there is to again reaffirm our strong security relationship with Israel to make clear that we will protect their qualitative military edge and that we intend to hopefully as they take risks for peace that we will be able to provide the security that they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room, hopefully, to negotiate.  

                The second part of this is obviously to urge them to participate in the peace process.  We’ll also be meeting with the Palestinians and we’ll make the same kind of request that both enter into negotiations pursuant to the quartet that these difficult issues that need to be resolved are best resolved at the negotiating table by all of them participating and working on what are obviously some difficult issues that can only be resolved through negotiations. 

                The other part of being there will be to talk about Iran and the situation in Iran and the security threats that we see coming out of Iran as well and what steps we need to take in order to ensure that Iran hopefully does not pursue either its nuclear capabilities or the kind of assistance that it’s provided to terrorists in that part of the world, which leads me to the final point which is that the Arab spring has represented a lot of changes in that part of the world and it’s very important for Israel to try to ensure that it improves its relations with some of its neighboring countries.  And if we can be of help to assist Israel in doing that, we think that would be important, particularly with countries like Turkey and Egypt.  

                We move on to Egypt.  And, again, there what I hope to do is reaffirm our security relationship with Egypt.  It has been a longstanding relationship and we intend to continue that.  I want to thank General Tantawi for the help that he provided pursuant to my request when the Israeli embassy was under siege.  He was willing to respond and respond quickly to try to help in that situation.  And I deeply appreciate that. 

                Thirdly, to urge them to proceed with putting the election process in place so that Egypt can move towards a civilian government that represents the will of the people, represents their desires and represents their hopes.  And that whatever assistance hopefully we can provide to to help them in that process we certainly are willing to do. 

                Then I go on to NATO, to the ministerial there, and there the primary areas we’ll be focusing on Libya and what are the lessons learned from the Libyan experience.  There’s a lot of good obviously that came out of that operation.  But there are also some important lessons to learn for the future.  

                Secondly, to talk about Afghanistan and the future role of NATO in Afghanistan, General Allen will join me there and will provide a summary of the situation there.  And I look forward to talking with my NATO partners as to how we can best proceed in the future in order to ensure that Afghanistan remains stable.  

                Thirdly, we are going to also discuss at NATO a major issue, which is all of these countries are going through budget constrictions, including the United States.  And it’s very important now as we face those budget constraints to try to develop approaches that allow us to share capabilities and allow us to share technologies and allow us to work together closely in order to ensure that NATO can fulfill its role of providing security.  

                This is going to take some work, but obviously General Rasmussen is very interested in trying to advance this kind of approach.  And, frankly, we’re interested in advancing that as well to try to develop those capabilities so that frankly NATO can continue to do what it must do in order to provide for security not only there, but in other places as well. 

                And lastly we go to Naples to – I want to thank the operations people that work there in Naples, the NATO operations.  They did a great job.  And thank them, meet with the troops and reaffirm my heritage as well in Naples.  So that’s a quick preview of the trip.  And, obviously, at each place we’ll be talking specifically about each of those areas.  I think we’re doing a press – we’ll have press availability in each of those areas to try to give you an opportunity to pursue the specifics of what we’ve been able to discuss and hopefully what we’ve been able to achieve. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, about the Israeli-Palestinian issue – obviously, there’s a lot of reluctance on both sides to deal with some of those issues, particularly the settlements.  What message are you bringing that you think might be able to help move this discussion along that gives – do you have any optimism whatsoever that either side will adhere to the three-month and the end-of-next-year peace talk deadlines that the quartets talked about? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I don’t have to tell all of you how difficult that situation has been to try to move it towards the kind of peace negotiations that can resolve the issues that are there.  This has gone on a long time.  And I’m not naïve about the ability to kind of change some of the concerns and the problems both the Palestinians and the Israelis have.  

                But what I want to stress to both of them is that at this point in time it’s really important to instead of setting conditions for going to the negotiating table instead of looking for other approaches to resolve these issues, that the most important thing they can do is go to the negotiating table, that that would be a tremendous signal to the world that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want to try to find a solution to these problems.  

                And the fact is I don’t think they really lose anything by getting into negotiations.  The fact is that when – no one is going to tell them exactly what agreements they have to make.  No one is going to tell them exactly what they have to give up.  That is all part of the negotiating process.  So in many ways, they can protect their interests when they go into negotiations, and at the same time open a door to the possibility of finding a way to resolve these difficult issues that are there. 

                So I think my main message is to both sides, you don’t lose anything – you don’t lose anything by going into negotiations and trying to pursue a peace process that everyone in the world is hopefully can begin. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, along those lines, Egypt-Israeli relations are at their lowest in recent history.  And I’m curious what, if anything, can the United States do to influence and improve that relationship and specifically what message you can take to shift that relationship? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I want to ask them how we can be helpful in trying to improve those relations.  It’s pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated.  And that’s what’s happening.  And I think for the security of that region it’s really important that we do everything possible to try to help them reestablish relations with countries like Turkey and with Egypt.  

                Egypt, in talking with their leadership, I think that the fact that they are continuing to support the peace process, that they support the peace agreement reached with Israel or the fact that they continue to try to help when points of friction take place there tells me that they too are interested in trying to develop a better relationship as well.  

                But, you know, there are too many friction points as it is right now with all of these changes taking place.  The most important thing now would be for Israel as well as these neighboring countries to try to develop better relationship.  So in the very least they can communicate with each other rather than taking these issues to the streets. 

                Q:  (Off mike) – feel that Israel’s qualitative military edge is slipping as a result of these events? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  No.  I think the fact is that we certainly maintain a very strong security relationship with Israel.  We’re required under requirements of the United States and the Congress to ensure that they maintain that qualitative military edge.  And we continue to work with them on ensuring that that is the case. 

                So I think – there’s not much question in my mind that they maintain that edge, but the question you have to ask is, is it enough to maintain a military edge if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena?  And real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to protect your military strength. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, there are some in the Netanyahu government who are calling for a preemptive strike on Iran sooner rather than later.  What is your advice going to be?

                SEC. PANETTA:  I think it’s very important that when the United States and Israel share a common concern, and for that matter, there are other countries in that region that share a concern about Iran and their intentions, that it’s best if everyone could work together to make sure that we do everything possible to convince Iran not to pursue its nuclear capabilities, not to try to undermine stability in that region, not to promote terrorism, not to provide the kind of weaponry that they provided, for example, in Iraq that was used to kill our forces.  These are the kinds of issues that concern the United States, but concern other countries as well in that region.  And I think the most effective way to deal with Iran is not on a unilateral basis.  The best way to deal with the issues there is to unify an effort to confront Iran directly that they have to change their ways.

                Q:  (Off mike) – Yemen question for a second.  There were reports this weekend that Ibrahim Hassan Asiri was among – the bomb-maker for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was among those killed in the strike that killed Awlaki.  Do you have any information about whether he is dead and if he is dead, is that a more significant strike than Awlaki himself or if he’s not dead, is he kind of the remaining number one target in Yemen? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I don’t have any direct information to confirm that, that there were others that were in the vehicle that was hit.  But I have not seen specifics with regards to confirmation as to who they were at this point.  Obviously, if that were the case, that would be very important because this was an individual who was in fact involved in designing some of the potential explosives that Awlaki intended to use both on the airplane as well as the cargo planes as well.  

                Q:  Just a quick follow-up.  Do you think al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula going forward may be more oriented to attacks on the West or less oriented to attacks on the West with the demise of Awlaki?  

                SEC. PANETTA:  I think that by virtue of our operations to go after the key leadership in al Qaeda, bin Laden, the key leadership of al Qaeda in the FATA, and now going after the key leadership of al Qaeda in Yemen, that by virtue of eliminating that leadership I think it makes it much more difficult for al Qaeda to develop the kind of plans and operations for conducting large attacks abroad.  

                Now, having said that, there’s no question that al Qaeda remains a threat, that there are individuals within al Qaeda that are still there, that are still planning to try to attack the Unites States.  And I don’t think we can take anything for granted that somehow they won’t continue that kind of effort.  But I do think we have damaged their ability to conduct the kind of well-planned attacks that we’ve seen in the past. 

                Q:  Thank you, sir.  Let me get to the Palestinians for a second.  If the United States as it is – (inaudible) – vetoes, if the U.S. vetoes the Palestinians’ membership request to the Security Council, how concerned are you that the Palestinians will take to the street, which you alluded to before?  And can the Palestinian Authority be expected that they would do anything to restrain that? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I hope it doesn’t come to that.  I hope – I really do hope that as a result of the efforts by the quartet that the Palestinians will follow that path of sitting down and engaging in negotiations as opposed to pursuing the effort at the U.N.  You know, I think the reality is they’ve introduced the resolution there.  It’s there.  If they can engage in negotiations, for their sake, I think that’s the most effective way of trying to resolve the issues that they’re confronting.  One thing that’s been made clear – it’s been made clear by the president, it’s been made clear by the secretary of state – is that you are not going to achieve Middle East peace by trying to slam dunk it in the U.N.  The only way you’re going to achieve it is by negotiations. 

                MR.         :   Two more questions. 

                Q:  (Off mike) – about the military not being the only measure of security for Israel, are you concerned that the sort of whole premises of – the foundation of Israel security are seriously jeopardized at the moment given the change of regime in Egypt, given what’s going on in Syria potentially, throughout the region?  Do you feel that Israel recognizes the nature of the situation and that they’ve got to perhaps change their approach?  Do the U.S. and Israel have a disagreement about how – (off mike)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I don’t think there’s any question in talking with leaders from Israel that they recognize that they’ve become increasingly isolated in that part of the world and that that’s not a good situation.  And I think they recognize that it’s important to try to do whatever they can to try to improve those relations.  So what I would like to do is to not only urge them to do that, but to see if there are ways that we can help them to try to bridge those gaps so that they can at least begin to reestablish what were frankly good relations both with Turkey and with Egypt and these other countries in the region. 

                MR.         :  Last question. 

                Q:  You and – (off mike) – where U.S. is calling for President Saleh to sign this agreement that effectively – (off mike).  How do you reconcile those two things?  Isn’t it – (off mike) – Saleh goes that the level of cooperation with Saleh – (off mike)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  You know, at least from my experience in dealing with Yemen, there are a lot of people in the leadership there who are concerned about Awlaki and are concerned about terrorism in their country.  And we have developed over the years a relationship where we worked together, we shared intelligence, and we focused on some common targets there as well.  And I think that can continue to be the case regardless of what ultimately happens with President Saleh.  Obviously, we’ve urged him to step down and make a peaceful transition.  My sense is that if he does that, those who take his place will continue to be concerned about the ability to control terrorism.  

                MR.         :  Thank you everyone.