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Media Availability with Secretary of Defense Gates from Telaviv, Israel

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
April 19, 2007
            SEC. GATES: (In progress) -- minister of Defense and minister of Foreign Affairs with me.
      I received briefings at the Ministry of Defense on the Israeli view of the security challenges they see (in the briefing ?). And I also, particularly from both the foreign minister and the prime minister, you know, review of their view of the status of the peace process.
      We discussed bilateral military-to-military relations, obviously in some detail. I reaffirmed to them that the United States would continue to (properly ?) maintain and help Israel (to continue ?) -- (inaudible).
      We discussed both Syria and Iran in some detail.
            And finally, I described the situation as I saw it in Iraq, and also the opportunities that I -- (inaudible) -- here in the region -- (inaudible) -- concern over actions and behavior of -- (inaudible).
            Q     Mr. Secretary, if I could start off, the Israelis obviously have a more urgent view of the threat of the Iranian nuclear program than we do. I guess my question is, is there a difference of opinion among allies about how long diplomacy -- the diplomatic option ought to be allowed to unfold before other options, including the military option, are considered with regard to Iran?
            SEC. GATES: No, we really didn't discuss that. And I don't know -- for that reason, I don't know -- (inaudible). Clearly if you think that the program is further away from being irreversible or containable, you have more time for the diplomatic process to work. And -- (off mike). So I think -- I think -- I'll let the Israelis speak for themselves, but I have the impression that at this point they also are comfortable with letting the diplomatic process go forward.
            Q      Could I just follow up briefly? Did they want to discuss the military part of this and you were unprepared, as has been reported today in the (news -- Israeli paper ?), but not willing to go down that path, as has been reported in the Israeli press?
            SEC. GATES: They did not. They did not.
            Q     Sir, if I can ask you -- and you can embargo your answer to this question until we land in Iraq -- but I wanted to ask you about your upcoming meetings in Iraq and about the pace of reconciliation and some of the other things that we expect the Maliki government to accomplish. You have said other things, have said that the whole point of the new security strategy is to buy time for the Iraqi government. Are we comfortable with the pace of reconciliation? And what more do we think they need to do?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I would like to see -- I'm going to answer this in a way that I don't think you -- (off mike). Frankly, I would like to see faster progress, I think, getting some of these laws enacted -- getting the hydrocarbon law done, getting the revenue sharing law done, getting de-Ba'athification done. It's not that these laws are going to change the situation immediately, but I think that the ability to get them done communicates a willingness to work together -- all of the (parts ?) of the Iraqi government to work together to solve -- begin to solve some of these problems.
            So I think that -- I know it's difficult. Clearly, the attack on the Council of Representatives has made people nervous. But I think that it's just very important that they (bend ?) every effort to getting this legislation -- (off mike).
            Q     If I can follow up, the Iraqis, with some fanfare, have all put out a list of benchmarks. And if you go back and you look at those benchmarks, the dates have all passed, nothing they've said that they were going to accomplish -- many things just mentioned -- have not been (done ?). Some of them, in fact, no progress on. And as I understand it, now the parliament is going to go on a (meet-fest ?), you know, for some six weeks just as (surge ?) -- (inaudible) -- in June. Is there an appropriate sense of urgency from the united government?
            SEC. GATES: I think that, first of all -- and I've had this discussion, actually, on the Hill (on some of them here ?) where there has been a lot of talk about -- (inaudible). And I think that when the Iraqis have made these commitments, I think they have had the intent to carry them out. I think they have lacked the capacity to carry out what they want to do. And I think that's part of the reconciliation process, is getting themselves into a place where they can reach agreements on the use -- on the pieces of legislation. I mean, it's not easy, and there are -- there is a long history -- (inaudible) -- of suspicion. So getting the kind of broad agreement across the different sectarian groups to come together on these things, I think that's probably harder than they anticipated. After all, we've got a few examples in our own legislature looking back over the past 10 or 15 years of how hard it is to get major things through a legislature.
            And so I think that there's -- I'm sympathetic with some of the challenges that they face. But by the same token, they've picked up General Petraeus, who's -- (off mike).
            Q     Have you, Mr. Secretary -- well, would you begin to tell the Iraqis that -- would you give them any sense of time about what -- when they need to take these steps by? I mean, Sadr has said that he wants the U.S. out by two years. I mean, is that -- do they have less time than that? I mean, how will you -- how do you urge them forward?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- I think that's probably the question -- (off mike).
            Q     Mr. Secretary, concerning the debate that's now going on on the Hill -- (inaudible) --
            SEC. GATES: No. (Laughter.)
            Q     (Laughs.) But the Democrats met with the president -- (off mike). Would you say the position that the military would be comfortable with that will be a compromise in terms of setting up some type of deadline, even if there's no hard and fast deadline? What would that compromise -- what could it look like?
            SEC. GATES: (Off mike.)
            Q     And they haven't asked you -- the White House has not asked you for perhaps either -- (off mike) -- or suggestions on what the military could live with?
            SEC. GATES: (Off mike.)
            Q     Mr. Secretary, could we go back for a moment to your visit here in Israel? (I thought ?) you (were discussing ?) your concerns about future U.S. arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. And were you able to reach any kind of understanding on -- (inaudible) -- any Israeli fears that there may be?
            SEC. GATES: We did talk about that. And I talked about the -- first of all, I made it clear that it's a State Department program, not a Defense Department program. But that I thought that, look, we need to look at the circumstances in terms of the overall strategic environment and in terms of the concerns of other neighbors (more over ?) Iran, perhaps, than Israel, and that they needed to take into consideration the overall strategic environment and how that has changed. So I made it pretty clear that there are alternatives for their neighbors in terms of sophisticated weapons, and that needed to be taken (into consideration ?) as well.
            Q     Could you just expand on that a little bit? You say there are alternatives?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I'm confident the Russians would be very happy to sell weapons in the region. (Off mike.)
            Q     (Off mike.)
            SEC. GATES: (Off mike.) I don't quite know what -- (off mike).
            Q     Sir, can I follow up on that? You have said that there's been a mutual sense of trust in Iraq. Even if they were to patch those holes tomorrow, how much would change on the ground?
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that what the reconciliation process -- what will be -- (inaudible) -- in my opinion -- (inaudible) -- to get these different pieces of legislation passed is them agreeing, whether it's explicit or implicit, that all of these different factions are going to try -- are going to work together going forward in Iraq. And I think that then creates an environment in which the kind of conflict that produces the political conflict or the suspicion that contributes to the violence begins to be reduced.
            Is reconciliation going to take place the second all of these items are signed into law? Clearly not. But I think it begins the process that sends a message to all of the different groups in Iraq that their leaders have decided to work together, and I think that's been the process to (bring ?) Iraq together.
            Q     Is there a model for that? (Off mike.)
            SEC. GATES: No, not that I know of.
            Q      And what is the message that it sends conversely when they for so long have deadlocked -- (off mike)? I mean, you've talked about some of this -- hydrocarbon law -- (off mike).
            SEC. GATES: It took us 13 years to get from the Revolution a Constitution.
            Q      So they have another nine years now?
            SEC. GATES: My point is these things -- these things are more complicated than they appear, and they just don't fall into place automatically and happen overnight. I think -- I think what we're looking for and I think what Prime Minister Maliki is trying to bring about is the kind of agreement that moves -- that moves this process forward, and that's -- (off mike).
            Q     Sir, is there any -- is there any sort of possibility there that -- (inaudible). If they can't -- if they're not ready to pass a de-Ba'athification law or a revenue sharing law right now, is there something that the -- (inaudible) -- for Prime Minister Maliki or that Prime Minister Maliki's coalition should do for the Sunni minority that would start to take a smaller step forward, anything that you -- (inaudible)?
            SEC. GATES: Nothing specific -- (off mike).
            Q     Conversely, is there -- the surge was always prefaced on the Iraqis taking some steps as well. Is there -- will you be telling them that, you know, the length of the surge, the length of the time we'll keep additional troops in Iraq, is in part dependent on their ability to move forward on some of these measures?
            SEC. GATES: I think a lot of the -- as I said before, I think one of the ancillary benefits of the debate on the Hill is that the Iraqis have to know, as I've said, this isn't an open-ended commitment. The president has said that, you know, our patience is not unlimited. I don't think we've been very stubborn in communicating these messages to the Iraqis.
            Q     Will you do that directly to them? Is that one of the things you plan to do?
            SEC. GATES: Yes.
            Q     Thank you, sir.
            Q     Thanks.
            SEC. GATES: See you later.
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