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Joint Press Conference with Secretary Gates and Minister Barak from Tel Aviv, Israel

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak
March 24, 2011

            STAFF:  Mr. Gates, please.  Minister of Defense, please.

            MIN. BARAK:  Good afternoon.  I will make a short statement in English, then a few words in Hebrew and then will yield to the secretary.  And then we’ll answer one question on each side, with your permission.

            I would like to welcome Secretary Gates in his visit here to Israel, and a leading American and a leading friend of the whole region and of Israel as well.  I would like to draw our attention once again to the pivotal role of the relationship and the unique relation between the United States and Israel in shaping our security, the qualitative military edge of Israel, and the stability of the whole region.

            We share with the United States a common set of values, and the main topic that we discussed is the developments in the region and the need to keep fighting against terror and the sources of radical behavior.

            Just in the recent hour, once again a rocket hit Ashdod and probably another one even north of Ashdod, and that’s part of an escalation which takes part in the last several days.  I would like to reemphasize that Israel will not tolerate these terror attacks, and we will not allow terror to rise once again.

            The Israel Defense Forces are our main guarantee for deterrence, consultation and even for the backing of our efforts to pursue peace in the region, which we continuously keep doing. 

            And once again, I would like to thank you, Secretary Gates, for your friendship, for your personal and institutional contribution to making our security-related exchanges more profound, more substantial than ever in the past.  We highly appreciate this, and we wish you all the best in this visit all around the region and back home.  Thank you.

            (Continues in Hebrew.)

            SEC. GATES:  It’s a pleasure to be back in Israel and to have this opportunity to visit with my friend Ehud Barak, a true warrior-statesman and someone I’ve known and respected and worked with for over 20 years.

            I would start by joining President Obama in condemning yesterday’s terrorist bomb attack in Jerusalem, as well as the rockets and mortars fired into Israel from Gaza in recent days and even today.  The thoughts and condolences of the American government and the American people are with the victims and their families.  We underscore that Israel, like all nations, has the right to self-defense and to bring justice to the perpetrators of these repugnant acts.

            In my meeting today with Minister Barak, in addition to discussing these attacks, we discussed a range of important defense issues both in our bilateral relationship and across the region, including the dramatic political shifts taking place in the Middle East and the implications those changes hold for the future; Iran’s nuclear program; the security environment on Israel’s borders, including southern Lebanon and the Palestinian territories; and the ongoing military operation over Libya.

            Our bilateral relationship and this dialogue is so critical because, as Minister Barak once said, Israel lives at the focal point of some of the biggest security challenges facing the free world:  violent extremism, the proliferation of nuclear technologies, and the dilemmas posed by adversarial and failed states.  And I think it important, especially at a time of such dramatic change in the region, to reaffirm once more America’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.

            Indeed, I cannot recall a time during my public life when our two countries have had a closer defense relationship.  The U.S. and Israel are cooperating closely in areas such as missile defense technology, the Joint Strike Fighter, and in training exercises such as Juniper Stallion -- cooperation and support that ensures that Israel will continue to maintain its qualitative military edge.

            As you know, I have a full agenda here during my visit.  Later today, I will see President Peres.  Tomorrow, I will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss our defense relationship and the prospects for a two-state solution, and I will then have discussions with Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad.

            I know there may be a temptation during this time of great uncertainty in the region to be more cautious about pursuing the peace process, but in my meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, I carry a different message:  that there is a need and an opportunity for bold action to move toward a two-state solution.  And as the parties move forward, the United States stands ready to support them in any way we can.

            In closing, every time I visit Israel, I’m reminded of the extraordinary challenges the Jewish people have overcome throughout their history, the tremendous accomplishment that the state of Israel represents and the importance of our alliance to ensuring Israel’s security.

            Thank you, Ehud, for hosting us, and I look forward to seeing you again at dinnertime.

            STAFF:  Thank you.  Thank you both.

            Now two questions.  We start with an American question, then an Israeli question. 

            STAFF:  (Off mic.)

            Q:  Thank you very much.  Good afternoon.  This is a question for both Minister Barak and Secretary Gates.  What is your opinion of the upheaval that has now reached Syria by all accounts?  Is this something that Israel’s encouraged by?  Perhaps not, given calls by yourself at times to approach the Assad government for peace.  I’d also like to deepen that question and ask whether Israel sees potentially a Syrian connection to the flare-up in Gaza.  It’s no secret that Islamic Jihad, Hamas have their headquarters in Syria.  Perhaps there’s an outside interest in opening up that front?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is, in fact, the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people, in some of these countries -- Libya is an example, Syria is another example -- where authoritarian regimes have suppressed their people and have been willing to use violence against them. Of course, the other example is the Iranian government prepared to use force against its own people. 

            And so I think that what we see is the opening to the future that’s occurring in virtually all of these countries.  Some of them are dealing with it better than others.  I’ve just come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate, and in fact, empowered a revolution.  The Syrians might take a lesson from that.

            MIN. BARAK:  First of all, I do not pretend to know exactly what happens now in Syria.  We learn it through a low-visibility kind of filters.  But if our -- and I’m -- I think that we are lucky enough to be at the center or the focal point of this internal (inaudible) Syria.  But if I would have to advise them, I would join the advice of the secretary, saying that we prefer the Egyptian model of behavior rather than the Libyan one to be adopted by our neighbors.

            In regard to the peace opportunities, once again, we cannot -- we cannot pass a judgment right now whether it’s good or not, whether the situation really is right or not.  But in time, the Syrian government will decide that they are open to consider negotiating with us.  We will be open.  But it’s up to them.  It’s their decision.  We cannot pass a judgment.  I think that this difficult situation creates not just sweat and challenges but also opportunities.  And we have be -- have to be alert to be able to see those opportunities the moment they emerge rather than let them slip out of our fingers and face the uncertainties of a deeper chaos in the Middle East.

            SEC. GATES:  Phil.

            Q:  Thank you.  And this is a question for both of you.  Do you believe a heavy-handed Israeli response to yesterday’s bombing and today’s rocket attacks would play into the hands of those in the region who want to sever peace talks?  And what path should Israel pursue in regards to peace?

            MIN. BARAK:  Can you repeat the question?  I’m not (inaudible).

            Q:  Sure.  Do you believe a heavy-handed Israeli response to yesterday’s bombing and today’s rocket attacks would play into the hands of those in the region who want to sever peace talks?  And what path should Israel pursue in regards to peace?

            MIN. BARAK:  I think that’s it not about giving a name or description to this response, though is a need to respond.  Every sovereign would have responded when its citizenry is -- became a target for indiscriminate launching of rockets.  I do not know any government that would sit idle.  So we have to respond.

            Now, we do not want to become the -- kind of the -- kind of the victims of our own (inaudible).  So we keep the right to pass a judgment about how, when and in what kind of amount of firepower or ammunition to respond.  But we will respond.  We have to respond.  And we are determined to bring back tranquility to the region.  And unfortunately, this tough neighborhood, it cannot be done without the readiness and practice of using, from time to time, force.

            SEC. GATES:  I think the Israelis will have to make their own decision in terms of how to respond.  No sovereign state can tolerate having rockets fired at its -- at its -- at its people.

            I think one of the -- one of the significant features of what is going on across the region is that as diverse as the countries are, where there is -- where there are demonstrations and unrest, in virtually every case, the theme of those demonstrations has been directed inward at problems in those countries.  And I think we all just need to be mindful to keep that we don’t want to do anything that allows extremists or others to divert the narrative of reform that is going on in virtually all of the countries of the region.

            MIN. BARAK:  Please, last question for an Israeli reporter.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, you’ve just emphasized the special relationship between the United States and Israel.  In light of the recent events in the Middle East, could you comment on Minister Barak’s suggestion that the United States will expand its military aid to Israel by $20 billion?  And Mr. Barak, regarding the shootings from Gaza, do you see Hamas as the only -- only Hamas as responsible for this situation, or do you make a distinction between Hamas and Islamic Jihad?

            MIN. BARAK:  I would like to answer, sir, with your permission.  I raised the issue of 20 billion [dollars] as a part of a wider development; will Israel sign a peace agreement with a major neighbor, be it the Palestinians or the whole region or Syria or whatever.  It’s only within this context when we are taking extra mile of risks in order to stabilize the whole region that we can afford turning to the United States and ask them, in spite of all the circumstances therein, to try to help us to upgrade the security of Israel for the next generation.

            In fact, that’s nothing new.  I talked about it 10 years ago with Clinton.  I talked about it five years ago with President Bush.  I already talked to him about it more than once at the Pentagon and the (inaudible) Americans.

            So it’s nothing new about it.  In order to make peace in this tough neighborhood where there is no mercy for the weak, no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves, Israel has to take further security risks for all potential development that could happen, as we see around there from time to time.  And that’s where we ask the United States to help us to upgrade our security capabilities by systems that sometimes they are the only one who produces (inaudible).  And we’ve sent in support for us in systems that only we know how to build and develop.

            In regarding to your other question, we see the Hamas as responsible because Hamas is basically not just a terrorist group.  It’s also the regime in Gaza.  And they have to enforce or impose their will upon -- be it the Islamic Jihad or other dissident groups.  We cannot make this fine differentiation between different sources of rockets.  When the rockets come on the head of a family somewhere in Ashkelon or in Beersheba or in a small village or city around the Gaza Strip, it doesn’t matter for them whether it came from the -- this gang or the other gang or from the Islamic Jihad or from the Hamas.  For us, Hamas is responsible for whatever comes from Gaza.

            SEC. GATES:  First of all, I understood the minister’s comment and in precisely the context that he described it.  And I would just restate what I said in my opening statement, that President Obama is the eighth American president I’ve worked for.  And I don’t believe that the security relationship between the United States and Israel has ever been stronger than it is right now.  And the steps that we have taken in the last two years in terms of, just as one example, collaborating together on missile defense, I think are without precedent.  I see no change in prospect for that relationship.

            David.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, you’ve just come from Egypt.  And I wonder whether in your conversations with Field Marshal Tantawi and others you had any chance to think about whether Egypt will be as strong a partner as it has been in security issues -- for example, in preventing smuggling of weapons to Gaza -- and if you had any other questions or concerns after your visit.

            And Minister Barak, I’d be interested in your views about the new Egypt.  And also, as this revolution spreads, it seems now, to Syria, to lemon -- to Yemen, to other countries, do you sometimes think --

            MIN. BARAK:  Well, not Iran.

            Q:  Well --

            MIN. BARAK:  We wish together that it will jump directly to Tehran, yeah.

            Q:  Include that in your answer.  But my question is whether you ever wonder whether the United States is -- has been so supportive of change that perhaps it should think a bit more about stability in addition?

            SEC. GATES:  First of all, I was quite reassured by my conversations in Egypt, and in particular with Field Marshal Tantawi, about their commitment to the treaty with Israel and to their commitment to continuing a high-level dialogue on a routine basis between Israeli and Egyptian leaders.  They, too, are concerned about the smuggling problem.  And I offered our assistance to them, technical and otherwise, in terms of getting a handle on this.  But I came away persuaded that they take it seriously, and that they also take the relationship with Israel seriously.

            MIN. BARAK:  I think that the historic aspect that we see on the -- all over -- all around the Arab world is something unprecedented -- we didn’t see such phenomena since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire some hundred years ago, almost hundred years ago, or the -- or the demise of the French colonial empire some 60 or 50 -- it depends how you count -- years ago.

            And it’s really -- historically speaking, it’s moving and inspiring phenomena; clearly promising for the future of the Arab people, for the young generation in the Arab world, for the right of women, for the right to self -- express themselves and so on.

            But unfortunately, we are experienced (inaudible).  As the secretary mentioned today, you know, an optimist in the Middle East is a -- a pessimist in the Middle East is an optimist with experience.  We have to follow historic experiences of similar revolutions.  Usually after a short period of elation from the romanticism and the idealism that spreads around the streets, there might come, and came in the past, a determined group, however small, who is ready to kill and be killed if necessary in order to come to power, and they come to power. 

            So we have to look around us and make whatever we can.  We are extremely limited in our capacity to influence.  United States has more influence.  But the rest of the world should support the elements that provides or ensures stability in the short range and try to minimize the chances of extremist group to come to power. 

            I believe that the basic process is good.  It’s true that the moderate (inaudible) leaders in the region, and I don’t count neither Libya or Iran among them, but the others who are extremely sensitive and responsible regarding to the stability issue and extremely sensitive to international commitments, including the Israeli-Egyptian peace.  So I feel that we have to be careful and open-eyed in the short term to minimize negative developments and minimize risk for stability, but in the long run it’s -- it is an extremely positive phenomena. 

            In regard to the Egyptian leadership, I know Field Marshal Tantawi for many years.  In fact, 35 years or so -- 30 years ago, we fought each other.  We were both (inaudible) battalion commanders in the same -- in the same sector when we crossed the Suez Canal.  He was protecting the Eastern Bank with his infantry battalion.  I came with my tank battalion.  When I talked to him after he took power, I told him we have an utmost responsibility to make sure that our younger generation will not find themselves in the same experiences we had been through. 

            And I cannot quote him of course, but I have a reason to believe that as long as the Egyptian armed forces are in power, they’re a major pillar of stability within Egypt.  The peace agreement, as well as other Egyptian international commitments, will be respected and kept. 

            Thank you once again, my friend, Bob Gates, and have a good stay here.  Thank you all.