MINISTER OF DEFENSE EHUD BARAK: Good afternoon. I would like to welcome you, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, an old friend of mine and of course of Israel. And I would like to wish him successful visit here and in other points in the Middle East where he goes right now. I would like to thank him, thank you, Leon, and through you the administration, the president, the American people for the continued support and backing of Israel security in this tough neighborhood, and for the unwavering support of our qualitative military edge and the supply of the main platforms with which we protect and defend our state.
I have known Leon for many years from his time in politics and later on in the CIA, and now in Defense, and can assure you that he is a real friend of Israel, at the same time an objective observer of the Middle East from which – from whom you can hear also points that could or should be looked according to his view in the different way, but always in an honest and frank manner.
We are facing a huge challenge defined by world terror with strong implications in our region. We are fighting on our borders and within our borders against terror. America is playing the major role in fighting against terror for the stability of this region and the wider Middle East and paying a price for it. We want to congratulate you, Secretary, for your successes in this struggle, and wish you more and more successes.
We basically believe that our friendship and exchange of intelligence materials and the open views about the region will continue and will help the basic common ground that our peoples have in terms of values and beliefs to inspire the attitude of us in pursuing an effective struggle against terror, while looking all around us for every opportunity to promote the cause of peace between us and all our neighbors.
Thank you, and once again, thank you for coming.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Thank you very much, Ehud. I want to thank my dear friend Ehud for hosting me today and for the very warm welcome that he’s giving me as I come to Israel. I’ve been here a number of times in other capacities but this is my first time to Israel as secretary of Defense. As the minister pointed out, we’ve known each other for a long time, going back to before my days as chief of staff to President Clinton and as a member of Congress.
During that time I’ve developed a very deep respect for him as a warrior, as a leader and as a statesman. He’s visited me a number of times in Washington in my different capacities and has visited twice to the Pentagon since I became secretary of Defense, and so it’s a pleasure for me to be able to reciprocate by coming here and having the opportunity to strengthen our close working relationship.
We’ve just completed a very productive set of discussions, during which I reaffirmed the unshakeable commitment of the United States to the security of Israel, and I will share the same message when I meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who I look forward to meeting later today.
I want the Israeli people to be confident in America’s enduring commitment to their freedom and security, especially during this time of dramatic change in the Middle East. The political shifts taking place in this region present both challenges and opportunities to Israel and the United States, but make no mistake: we will face these challenges together as allies.
In our discussions today I appreciated hearing the minister’s insights on the shifting security landscape in the region and the implications for the future. We’ve also addressed a number of very important issues, such as Iran’s nuclear program, the security environment on Israel’s borders, including Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. And as I told him, we always stand ready to help Israel and be as helpful as possible in dealing with those relations in the region.
There is no doubt that we face a number of very vexing challenges, security challenges. This is a dangerous region of the world. Violent extremism, terrorism still continues to threaten this area. We have the proliferation of nuclear technologies and the threats posed by adversarial states. But I’m encouraged that the United States and Israel have a closer defense relationship today than ever in history.
And today our cooperation is deepening in areas such as missile defense technology, counterterrorism and the joint military exercises that we have. It’s yielding tangible benefits and it’s helping to save lives. We just recently provided Israel the opportunity to field the first U.S.-funded Iron Dome battery, which has been effective in countering rockets that are being fired at Israel civilians.
Of course, achieving long-term security for Israel is ultimately dependent on a sustainable comprehensive Middle East peace. Security is dependent on a strong military, but it is also dependent on strong diplomacy. Minister Barak and I discussed the current status of these efforts and later today I’ll have a chance to discuss the same issues with Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian President Abbas.
I want to emphasize that there is a need and an opportunity for bold action on both sides to move towards a negotiated two-state solution. There is no alternative to negotiation. But that does not mean that negotiation should be the last alternative. It should be something that the parties turn to now to deal with the issues that are there, and as the parties move forward, the United States stands ready to support them.
Although this is my first time visiting Israel as secretary, I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to Israel, as I said, a number of times. I’ve built a strong bond of friendship with many of the leaders here in Israel and I have a deep appreciation and respect for the extraordinary challenges that the Jewish people have overcome in establishing this state and sustaining it in the face of war and continuing security challenges.
The State of Israel is a testament to the enduring strength of the Jewish people and the American people will always stand by Israel’s side. Minister Barak, Ehud, thank you for your friendship, thank you for your cooperation, your partnership with me and with the American people.
MIN. BARAK: Thank you. With your permission, a few words in Hebrew.
(Min. Barak speaks in Hebrew.)
MIN. BARAK: A few questions and just state who you are and who are you working for.
Q: Mr. Secretary – (inaudible) – Israel. During your time as head of the CIA, Israel attacked a nuclear reactor in Syria. As you well know, there is an ongoing discussion in Israel whether –
MIN. BARAK: We never admitted – just for some of –
Q: The Americans did.
MIN. BARAK: -- the media people not held about it but – (inaudible) – never took responsibility.
Q: As you probably well know, there is an ongoing discussion in Israel whether such acts should be taken against Iran’s nuclear program. We would appreciate if you could share with us your position on that issue.
SEC. PANETTA: I’ve said very clearly that I think both Israel and the United States, and for that matter a number of countries in this region, recognize the threat from Iran, the fact that they continue to try to develop a nuclear capability; the fact that they continue to spread terrorism and support terrorism in this region; the fact that they continue to try to undermine stability; the fact that they continue to provide arms, some of which have been used to kill American soldiers.
So we’re very concerned about Iran, and I think the best approach to dealing with that threat is for all of us to do whatever is necessary to make very clear to them that they can’t proceed on the path that they’re on, that if they want to join the family of nations and try to do this as a responsible member of the international community, we would welcome them. But if they don’t, that we will work together to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they do not represent a threat to this region. But I think it ought to be done on the basis of countries working together in this region to be able to get that accomplished.
MIN. BARAK: It seems to us that the Iranians somehow seem to belong to the bad guys in the region, not to the good ones.
Q: (Off mic) – can you tell the Israeli people why America is still – not to release Jonathan Pollard? Thank you.
SEC. PANETTA: That obviously has been a sensitive issue for a long time, but I think there is – there is a great deal of opposition to the release of Pollard that goes back to the fact that obviously he was convicted as a spy. And I think for that reason the president and others have indicated that the position of the United States is not to release him.
I’ve got numbers here. Craig Whitlock?
Q: That’s me. Craig Whitlock with the Washington Post. Gentlemen, I’d like to ask each of you for your current assessment of the situation in Syria. How long to you think Bashar al-Assad will be able to remain in power? And if he is removed, how concerned are you that Syria will become embroiled in a civil war that could destabilize the region?
SEC. PANETTA: You go first.
MIN. BARAK: I think that the Assad family who has ruled Syria for more than a generation now, that the young Assad has lost his legitimacy as a leader of his nation by the series of violent actions that caused loss of life for more than 2,000 civilians right now, and it continued even last weekend in (inaudible).
I believe that he lost his legitimacy, will end up losing his chair. I cannot predict whether it will take three weeks or three quarters. He probably will stay for some time by becoming more and more brutal, but there is no way that his family will resume its power and normalcy in Syria. I believe that not just we here but even the Arab League and practically most of Syrian traditional supporters reached this conclusion.
It’s now remain only – probably only the Iranians who really support them, probably Hezbollah. The fall of power from this family will be a major blow to radical access to Iran, in a way to Hezbollah, probably even to Hamas. I wish the best for the Syrian people.
I spent – I was yesterday in Milan. I entered into a shop in one of the streets of Milan and two youngsters came out. They asked me, hello, Mr. Barak. I asked them, who are you? They said, we are Syrians. We are from the Damascus. We think that what’s happened there is terrible. We want peace. I told them, unfortunately you are not deciding for Syria. It’s up to the Syrian people. But I think that more and more Syrians realize that the time has come for change and it will happen. I cannot tell you the exact time.
SEC. PANETTA: I would agree with the Minister that the Syrian government has lost its legitimacy. Any time you kill your own people as indiscriminately as they have over these last number of months, it’s pretty clear that they have lost their legitimacy as a government. And for that reason the United States, as well as the international community, has made clear that Assad should step down, and while he continues to resist, I think it’s very clear that it’s a matter of time before that in fact happens. When it does, we don’t know. But I think the international community and the United States will continue to bring pressure on Syria to do the right thing and to be able to hopefully have Assad step down and to establish a government that is more responsive to the needs of their people.
MIN. BARAK: Please.
Q: Minister Barak, do you agree with Secretary Panetta that Israel has become increasingly isolated in the region and needs to take action to improve relations with Turkey and with Egypt and get back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians?
And Mr. Secretary, there were reports over the weekend that the U.S. Congress has withheld about $200 million of the aid from the Palestinian Authority for health care, food and infrastructure projects. What is the Obama position – Obama administration’s position and what are you doing in this regard? And is security aid to the Palestinians also threatened?
MIN. BARAK: This government, the present government in Israel wants or prefers to see a two-state solution, two-state or two peoples, reached through direct conversations with no preconditions. I believe the events of last week in – or the week before in New York clearly prove there are limits to the Palestinian capacity to navigate the world, and somehow the Security Council, led by the American backing, said, OK, it will be considered, but under proper process. And we found that the American government – and it was clear from the president’s speech – expects both sides to be able to make painful decisions in order to enable it.
Having said that, it’s clear that in the world as a whole there are many who would like to see Israel cornered in certain kind of isolation, and it’s clear to us that we have a responsibility to try to moderate, to ease tensions with our neighbors. We have enough problems accumulated on our table. We don’t need to add to them those who are not ultimately necessary.
And I fully agree that we are to look for every reasonable and proper way to reduce tensions with Turkey, with Egypt, to find a way to resume negotiations in a sincere and effective manner with the Palestinians and to try to build trust and keep the momentum of the bottom-up effort to help them to make the area more secure.
I think that the achievements with security regarding Palestinian – (inaudible) – are impressive and they are the results of the effectiveness of the idea of our intelligence services as well as the cooperation with the Palestinian – or coordination with the Palestinian security forces, and I hope that the level of restraint that has been shown until now on the Palestinian side through the demonstration will be kept in the coming weeks so that the proper atmosphere or ambience will be there for moving in this direction. And troubles will not be in short supply. Don’t worry.
SEC. PANETTA: The administration opposes holding those – withholding those funds from the Palestinians. One of the most effective things that has taken place is the provision of those funds and the ability of the Palestinians to develop better security in their area as a result of that, and I think that benefits Israel and it benefits the Palestinians. And frankly, we have seen some very good results as a result of that investment.
This is a critical time. This is no time to withhold those funds at a point in time where we are urging the Palestinians and the Israelis to be able to sit down and negotiate a peace agreement. This would be exactly the wrong time to withdraw those kinds of necessary funds.
Q: (Off mic) – from the New York Times. Mr. Secretary, do you know, are you going to – do you plan to bring a man called Ilan Grapel home from Egypt tomorrow who’s been held there on alleged espionage charges?
SEC. PANETTA: There’s really nothing I can say about the specifics of that. I’ll wait until I get to Egypt. You know, we have made our concerns known to the Egyptians about holding that individual and we would hope that whether it happens with me or whether it happens at some point in the future that they do take steps to release that individual.
MIN. BARAK: Thank you very much and shanah tovah to all of you