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Joint Press Conference with Secretary Panetta and Minister Barak in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak
November 29, 2012

              SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA:  Good afternoon.  It's a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity again to welcome my dear friend, Minister Ehud Barak, to the Pentagon.  I'd like to begin by taking a moment to pay tribute to Ehud.  As you know, he's made an announcement that he intends to retire from political life in Israel.  

            Our friendship stretches back a number of decades, to, I think, beginning with my time as a member of Congress and then as a member of the Clinton administration, and we also worked very closely when I was director of the CIA, had a number of meetings in that capacity, and then certainly now as secretary of defense. 

            Since I became secretary of defense, we have been in very regular communication and have built a very strong working relationship.  I could not have more respect for his brilliant strategic mind.  He's got one of the best in the business.  It obviously stems from a warrior heart and his warrior experience, but he's had a lifelong commitment, obviously, to protecting the state of Israel. 

            Through his distinguished military career, and the political career that followed, few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on Israeli security and prosperity and, I have to say, on the U.S.-Israeli relationship.  It is, I think, the strongest that -- the relationship between the United States and Israel is stronger than I think at any time in history, based on our relationship and based on the assistance that we are providing. 

            Because of his lifetime of public service, whether as a young IDF commander or as chief of the general staff, or as prime minister or minister of defense, I believe the Israeli people are safer and they're more secure.  And in no small part because of his determined advocacy, as I said, the U.S.-Israeli defense relationship, I believe, is stronger than it ever has been. That relationship is grounded, very frankly, on shared values, the values that we have as nations.  It's based on the iron-clad commitment of the United States to Israel's security.  And a lot of that was the focus of our discussions today. 

            In our meeting, Minister Barak and I reviewed Israel's efforts to defend its people from the threat of rockets that were fired from the Gaza Strip, Operation Pillar of Defense.  As President Obama made clear throughout the recent conflict, the United States strongly supports Israel's right to defend itself and strongly condemns the rocket attacks against Israel.  We are encouraged that the cease-fire agreement has held. 

            And we will continue to work with Israel and our partner, Egypt, to end smuggling of arms into Gaza, while ensuring the safe passage of humanitarian aid.  No nation should have to live in fear of these kinds of attacks.  And that's why I'm very proud that our two countries cooperated so closely to field the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.  Iron Dome performed -- I think it's fair to say -- remarkably well during the recent escalation.  It intercepted more than 400 rockets bound for Israeli population centers, or a roughly 85 percent success rate overall. 

            I had the opportunity, as many of you know, to actually see this lifesaving capability firsthand in August.  Ehud and I traveled to southern Israel and visited the Iron Dome battery in that vicinity.  Its success is a testament to the ingenuity of the Israeli people and to the commitment of the United States to Israel's security. 

            Today, I assured the minister that our strong commitment to Iron Dome will continue into the future.  At the president's direction, the department continues to work closely with Israel's Ministry of Defense to ensure that we are making the necessary investments into Iron Dome. 

            This spring, we announced that we would provide $70 million in fiscal 2012 on top of the $205 million previously appropriated to meet Israel's needs for that fiscal year.  And we will obviously continue to work together to seek additional funding to enable Israel to boost Iron Dome's capacity further and to help prevent the kind of escalation and violence that we've seen. 

            The events of the past month underscore something that the Israeli prime minister said, and I have said, that Iron Dome does not start wars.  It helps prevent wars. 

            But achieving our shared goal of long-term security for the Israeli people ultimately requires the continued pursuit of a sustainable and comprehensive Middle East peace.  There remain -- there remains a need and an opportunity for action on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, to hopefully move towards a negotiated two-state solution.  We are all clear-eyed about the challenges.  We know what the difficulties are.  But there is no alternative to negotiation between the two parties. 

            Another shared challenge to our long-term security is Iran.  And today, Ehud and I discussed our continuing concerns over Iran's destabilizing activities and its nuclear program.  As the president clearly stated, we will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And that remains our policy.

            Iran is facing unprecedented pressure from the sanctions, crippling sanctions that have been imposed by the international community, and I continue to believe that there is time and space for an effort to try to achieve a diplomatic solution, which remains, I believe, the preferred outcome for both the United States and for Israel. 

            After all, 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. 

            And as he prepares to close this chapter in his career, I'm delighted to be able to recognize his immense contributions by bestowing on him the Department of Defense's highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award. 

            Ehud, thank you for your friendship, for your dedication to the shared dream of a better and safer and more secure future for Israel and for the United States. 

            ISRAELI MINISTER OF DEFENSE EHUD BARAK:  I would like to thank you, Secretary -- my friend, Secretary Panetta, for your warm words and for this surprise.  I thought that at my age I could not be surprised by anything, but it's a surprise, and I will carry it proudly.  Thank you very much. 

            And I would like to thank Secretary Panetta for his long-term friendship and commitment to the security of Israel.  Besides being a great American, great leader, taking care of America's interests all around the world and our region, I always found a kind of open door when we raised the issues that has to do with the security, qualitative military edge, and the support for Israel, our ever closer intelligence relationship, as well as our closer than ever defense relationship. 

            It reflected itself once again during the last operation in the Gaza, where Iron Dome really changed the landscape of the conflict and enabled us to act forcefully within a short timeframe, trying to hit the target that should be hit, but minimize the damage to civilians on the other side, while our population, 1.2 million, is continuously shelled by rockets and missiles from the Gaza Strip. 

            And those Iron Dome batteries could not be deployed on time without the direct and urgent support that you gave us, Secretary Panetta, backed by the -- by President Obama on one side and the Congress on the other side, and being executed on time.  

            We highly appreciate your plans to help us in the future on the same issue, because the needs are much larger than what we have right now, and we are determined to complete the system, besides the operational offensive capacities of the Israeli armed forces. 

            The security relationship, as well as the intelligence relationship between our two countries, has never been so close, and they were strengthened a lot during the terms of Bob Gates in the past and now with Secretary Leon Panetta, and, of course, President Obama, and we are highly thankful for this. 

            We share the same beliefs in freedom, liberty, democracy, human dignity, but the U.S. strengths, as well as our active vigilance in issues related to Israel, but mainly your role in the whole region are the real guarantee for the opportunity for these values to flourish.  And all around our turbulent region, from Syria these days due to Hezbollah, Hamas in the recent weeks, and always Iran in the -- on the background, we see all citizens of the region looking at the United States as a source of kind of moral beacon on one hand and social support and hope for the good guys against the bad guys, wherever they are all around the region. 

            We are highly appreciative of this role.  We always keep the right to defend ourselves by ourselves on time where it's needed, but I think that the role of the United States is invaluable in our region. 

            We are looking forward.  We do not desire war.  We pursue peace.  But unfortunately, the neighborhood is extremely tough.  No place for the fainthearted, how you call it.  There's no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves, no mercy for the weak, and we are seeing it daily in Syria and other corners, and -- but we are determined to flourish, in spite of all these developments, and we are determined to make Israel stronger and more secure.  We will always stretch one hand to look for any opportunity to -- knocking on any door, opening any window to find a way to make peace, but at the same time, we always be ready with the pointing finger, how you call this -- 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Trigger finger. 

            MIN. BARAK:  -- close to the trigger, ready to pull it if it becomes ultimately necessary.  And on this kind of vision, a hopeful one of our region, I'm coming to end my term as minister of defense.  I can tell you, Leon, that from my experience, after political life, there is real life waiting us.  Probably both of us should at some point down the -- and I'm sure we will find a way to enjoy this life without losing sight of the interests of our nations, and always we will have part of our heart with the defense intelligence issues and challenges. 

            I thank you once again very much for the long, long decades of friendship and for this honor.  And we hold our relationship with you, with the Pentagon, with the defense establishment, and I hold my relationship with you highly precious.  Thank you very much. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Thank you. 

            MIN. BARAK:  Now we have something to give to you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Oh, okay. 

            MIN. BARAK:  And it's a small Iron Dome.  It doesn't explode.  It cannot shoot -- so don't worry.  But just to give you a small memento, our appreciation. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Thank you very much.  I appreciate that.  Is there a photograph?  I want to give you one more memento.  This was at the -- this was at the Iron Dome site.  And I wanted you to have that memento for representing our friendship. 

            MIN. BARAK:  He obviously is much more handsome.  Thank you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  All right, thank you. 

            MIN. BARAK:  Thank you.

            SEC. PANETTA:  All right, George?           

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary, Mr. Minister.  We have time for a few questions.  The first one will be from Bob Burns with the Associated Press. 

            Q:  Mr. Minister, question for you about the expected vote this afternoon in the U.N. on granting the Palestinians non-member observer status.  What are the implications of this for Israel?  Given it's not granting them statehood, what really does that change for Israel?  

            And may I ask a question of Secretary Panetta, as well?  A question on Afghanistan and the post-2014 mission.  I know that no decisions have been made yet, but could you sketch out for us your thinking on what the counterterrorism mission ought to be in terms of its scope, given that there is a very small Al Qaida presence in Afghanistan.  Should it include other terrorist targets beyond Al Qaida? 

            MIN. BARAK:  Should I start?  We think that the decision of Abu Mazen to go to the General Assembly and ask for non-member status is a mistake.  I think that this view is shared at least by you and a few others around the world.  I think that nothing can replace on the way to serve our -- the substance matter of our -- the conflict, nothing can replace the direct negotiation with no preconditions. 

            And I believe that it should start -- of course, we cannot start it during election period in Israel.  We would prefer to see it being delayed for another three months or so, and then start negotiation with no preconditions with the next government of Israel.  

            But as you -- as we all know, Abu Mazen rejected this proposal and turned to the U.N.  And I believe that he will have undoubtedly a majority, probably quite impressive one, and it will mean that they are a non-member state. 

            Some people are worried about the possibility that, once they are a non-member state, that might try to go to the ICC or whatever.  I don't think that it can change, once again.  It's -- in a way, that's the right way to make things worse, rather than to solve them.  

            And I strongly believe that ultimately it's not a zero-sum game between us and the Palestinians.  We are not making them a favor by proposing a negotiation with no precondition.  They are not making us a favor by keeping their sights on two states for two nations.  And there is a common need of both people in the long term to find a way beyond all these symbolic steps.  And, of course, it's a symbolic step that will resonate with the wishes of many Palestinians, but to go beyond the symbolic steps into the reality of having to make painful and tough decisions on both sides, because the contours of the solutions that -- the way to solve our conflict are quite clear to a majority of Palestinians, a majority of Israeli  people -- of the dreams on both sides, but reflects reality and should be dealt with in a sincere manner immediately after election result. 

            Q:  So if it's a symbolic step, then it doesn't have any concrete implications (off mic) 

            MIN. BARAK:  Well, it has a -- you know, it has certain concrete implications.  They will become a non-member state, kind of having a place in the -- in the U.N. as a non-member state.  I don't think that it practically will have a huge influence or major impact on any issue, but probably somewhere in the future they will try to raise issues from the past, and then they go to some -- to the HRC or some other organs.  I don't see this as the major consequence. 

            I think that most important, urgent need is to open direct negotiations.  Even if we cannot agree on a fully fledged peace, probably we can accomplish something which is better than the status quo or the (inaudible) that might be created by not doing anything.

            SEC. PANETTA:  The fundamental mission in Afghanistan is to establish an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself and ensure that Al Qaida never again finds a safe haven within Afghanistan from which to conduct attacks on the United States or any other country. 

            The goal here is an enduring presence, therefore, that will direct itself towards, you know, three important missions.  One is obviously CT, counterterrorism, to ensure that we continue to go after whatever Al Qaida targets remain in Afghanistan.  And although, you know, we clearly have had an impact on their presence in Afghanistan, the fact is that they continue to show up and intelligence continues to indicate that, you know, they are looking for some kind of capability to be able to go into Afghanistan, as well. 

            That's something we just have to be continually vigilant in terms of protecting against.  So that's going to be the fundamental thrust of the CT effort in the enduring presence.  We also are going to continue to have a train-and-assist mission to help develop the capability of the Afghan army.  And the third mission will be to continue to provide some enabling capability so that we can provide the support needed for our forces, as well. 

            Q:  Does that suggest any size of force that would be adequate for that mission? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  That's exactly what's being discussed. 

            MR. LITTLE:  The next question goes to Barbara Starr of CNN. 

            Q:  Mr. Secretary -- and for both of you -- can you -- regarding Syria -- can you completely rule out that there has been no U.S. involvement in supplying surface-to-air missiles to the Syrian opposition?  What consideration are you giving to lethal aid or military involvement for the rebels?  Because clearly, Assad is hanging on. 

            And, Mr. Minister, if I might, as you prepare to change gears in your life, what's your assessment now of the military necessity to strike Iran's nuclear program?  What reason do you have, if any, to believe that sanctions are working, as Mr. Panetta said, if even now different -- slightly differently, Iran is able to smuggle weapons into Gaza?  What reason is there to believe sanctions work against them? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  With regards to Syria, let me say unequivocally that we have not provided any of those kinds of missiles to the opposition forces located in Syria.  Our focus has been on -- we do provide assistance.  It's non-lethal assistance to the opposition.  We obviously are continuing to work on humanitarian relief to the refugees that have been impacted.  And we continue to -- with the assistance of Israel and other countries in the region -- continue to try to monitor very closely what's happening with the CBW sites in that -- in that area. 

            But our main focus right now has been to work with other countries to try to provide whatever assistance we can to the opposition, so that ultimately it can become not only an effective force, but ultimately can come together to provide the kind of political transformation that we think is ultimately going to be needed once Assad comes down. 

            MIN. BARAK:  In regard to Assad, we have nothing to add to what Leon said.  We think basically it's extremely disturbing situation there.  He will fall down, for sure.  And I think that it's too early to talk about what will happen the morning after, with all these groups working now there to topple him down or what might happen with those weapons that will not be used against his jets. 

            There is a reason to be worried, but there is an urgent need to topple him down.  I think that he creates huge damage.  It's criminal behavior on a global scale, what he's doing to his own people, using jet fighters and helicopters and artillery and tanks, killing his own people.  The whole world is watching.  And somehow, it's not easy to mobilize enough sense of purpose and unity of action and political will to translate the -- our feelings about what happens there into action to stop it.  And that's one of the lessons I have took from the last few years in the Middle East. 

            In regard to Iran, the kind of physical attack option is an option.  It should be there.  It should remain on the table, never be removed.  Of course, we would love to see some heavenly intervention that we'll start to wake up some morning and learn that they gave up on their nuclear intentions or probably that the Arab Spring has been translated into Farsi and emerged in the cities of Tehran, Mashhad, and Isfahan, but you cannot build a strategy based on these wishes or prayers. 

            Sanctions are working, and they're more helping than anything I remember in the past, vis-a-vis Iran.  But I don't believe that this kind of sanctions will bring the ayatollahs into a moment of truth, where they sit around the table and look at each other's eyes and decide that the game is over, they cannot stand it anymore, they're going to give up their nuclear intention.  I don't see it happening. 

            So I'm still feeling that during the coming year -- and hopefully before they turn into what I described as a zone of immunity for -- the point of view of Israel and probably somewhere later from the point of view of the United States, as well -- they will be coerced into putting an end to it this way or another. 

            Q:  Mr. Minister, can I just clarify?  Do you believe the zone of immunity will occur in 2013?  And when you say within a year, and therefore, when Mr. Panetta says they'll be prevented, how else would they be prevented other than by military option?           

            MIN. BARAK:  I think that -- I think that it will happen during 2013, but I thought that it will happen during 2012, and saw what happened -- and 2011 -- didn't happen.  The Iranian leadership has a lot of tools in their arsenal that can -- they can play with in order to delay it.  For example, when they decided to repossess some of the 20 percent enriched uranium backwards into a fuel rod for the Tehran research reactor, they stopped the moving toward what we call SK1  -- in 20 percent, the amount that might be meaningful for device or for a bomb. 

            When they use diplomacy, for example, they decide -- (inaudible) -- kind of gambit to delay it, to stop any kind of action for one year, it will be delayed by one year.  It's not -- it's beyond our control.  But we should be attentive to the fact that the -- coming closer to military nuclear capacity is a -- you cannot -- you cannot put one line on one parameter or measure and say that it's a kind of gestalt-- it should be contemplated solely and continuously to make sure that we are not suffering for certain kind of self-delusion, that we ignore small steps that they're doing, and accumulatingly, it can emerge as kind of crossing to -- into the zone of immunity without us observing it. 

            I believe that there is a -- much more clarity in the intelligence -- among the intelligence communities in the world, as the -- and the IAEA basically by now, unlike the situation in 2007, we all see the same -- basically the same picture.  We all see basically very similar intelligence.  We all see basically the same kind of diagnosis.  And there is always a question about the prognosis, what to do about it, and here we have sometimes slight differences that should be better discussed behind closed doors. 

            Q:  But you think Iran will do it? 

            MIN. BARAK:  I am confident that Iran is trying to go in the footsteps of Pakistan and North Korea and is very cautious not to fall prey into what happened to the late Gadhafi, when he was derailed, or under different circumstances – to the South Africans.  And, of course, they want not to find themselves in the situation of Iraq or Syria. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Jennifer Griffin for a final question. 

            Q:  Yes.  Defense Secretary Panetta, we've heard about the successes of the Iron Dome.  And we also know how much money the U.S. has invested in this.  We also understand that the U.S. Army would like its own Iron Dome and that it has put out a request for procurement options and that it is leaning towards a Raytheon version that would take years to develop and billions of dollars that the U.S. taxpayer, frankly, doesn't have right now.  Why should the U.S. Army not simply buy an Iron Dome that's already tested from Rafael?  And, sir, do you wish that the U.S. military would purchase the Iron Dome? 

            And if I could follow up on Iran, if the -- if there -- the window has not closed for a military option against Iran, why do you think it is the right time for you to step down as defense minister?  Do you feel that there's unfinished business still on that front? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Oh, on the Iron Dome question, we are at the present time going through our 2014 budget request.  And, you know, we're in the process of evaluating all of the requests by the different services with regards to, you know, what capabilities they want to have for the future. 

            But in doing that, obviously, we have to pay attention to the resource issue, what's available, and whether or not it fits within the financial resources that we've set aside in order to implement our defense strategy. 

            You know, my approach to that is, whatever approach they want to focus on has to be cost-effective.  It has to be cost-effective in today's world.  And that almost automatically means that we'd better look at all options before we come down and make a final decision. 

            MIN. BARAK:  The result of Iron Dome was extremely impressive.  We absorbed 1,500 -- a little bit more than 1,500 rockets and missiles launched into about one-tenth of the area of Israel, with about 20 percent of our population, some 1.5 million.  Five hundred ended up being intercepted, and there are more than -- about 85 percent of the interceptions succeeded.  Only 55 rockets out of the 1,500 ended up falling in urban areas. 

            The Iron Dome was extremely successful against salvos of rockets and about extrapolating the trajectory and not wasting a missile on a rocket that has to be -- has to land according to the extrapolation of trajectory in an open area. 

            So it's extremely, extremely successful.  And it -- you know, in our country, where a day of full -- fully fledged fighting costs $1.5 billion, just by shortening a war by five days, you ended up -- covered the whole investment in -- in the system, and somehow the very knowing of the other side that you have such an effective system, especially when we'll be equipped with many more interceptors, it will change the balance of contemplation on the other side, that creates the kind of logical kind of deterrence, not psychological one, because any enemy that tries against Israel is exposed to the effectiveness of our effort that we've seen during this operation.  

            And once again, there is a dramatic development in the closing very quickly cycles of operation that start with looking for -- (inaudible) -- in high enough resolution that enables to -- to put the site of extremely accurate munition and launch it and close these cycle very quickly, without hurting -- with a minimal collateral damage that also gives us certain length of breadth for operations. 

            We are -- we just accomplished, once again, with the general support of the -- of the Pentagon and Panetta and the administration a cycle of tests for the higher layer, second layer of the multi-layered interception system named David's Sling, extremely successful.  The interceptor just met physically -- no proximity field -- just met physically the target in the air with much higher velocities than the Iron Dome, and it's extremely promising, but the interceptor is 10 times more expensive.  So we are trying through modifications to improve -- to the further possible extent the performance of Iron Dome, so that it will save with the relatively cheaper interceptor the -- most of the challenges that were this time for David's Sling, which is much more expensive, and then let David's Sling deal with the rest of the -- of the threat. 

            So in over there, we have the arrows and the super arrows.  But in this project, the David's Sling, I believe that Raytheon -- and we are working together.  Of course, we will be sharing it with -- the ideas with you.  

            The second question, I prefer not to answer.  Probably we'll talk about once again the end of 2013, dependent on what will happen until then. 

            Thank you. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Mr. Barak, Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Okay, thank you. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Thank you, everyone.

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