Joint Press Conference with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Israel

August 1, 2012

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  • Israel

STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, hi. And the Minister of Defense will start with a short statement.

ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER EHUD BARAK: Defense Secretary Panetta, welcome to Iron Dome Ashkelon.

I would like to thank the United States administration for its generous assistance, and in particular its latest investment in Iron Dome project.

The relationship between our defense establishments is extraordinary. Much of the credit for this genuinely special relationship must be given to my friend and counterpart, Secretary Leon Panetta, and of course to President Obama.

Our ties with the United States have extended in a range of areas, including intelligence, high-tech, and securing the qualitative military edge of Israel. The defense relationship underpins greater and wider cooperation between the two countries. It also highlights the undeniable mutual commitment that exists between Israel and America.

The American administration recently allocated additional $70 million to equip Israel with more of Iron Dome. During the recent (inaudible) the Iron Dome system has been proven to be an extremely successful technological and operational project, extremely effective intercepting more than 80 percent of incoming missiles, neglecting those who are not going to hit real targets, and already intercepted more than 100 real missiles and rockets from the Gaza Strip.

We want to thank the administration for these funds that have already been transferred to Israel defense establishment. The region, our region, the Middle East is subject to dynamic changes (inaudible). Israel and America are vigilantly monitoring all of the regional developments.

Like any relationship, from time to time there are disagreements and differences of opinion. However, with true friendship these disagreements can never alter the fundamental depth and special nature of the United States-Israel relationship. We are determined to keep it this way.

Thank you very much, Secretary Panetta, and have a successful visit here. Thank you.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Thank you very much, Minister Barak, my good friend Ehud, and good morning everyone. It's a real pleasure to be here on my second visit to Israel as Secretary of Defense. This is about my fifth visit to the country since joining the Obama administration in 2009.

It's also a great honor to be standing here alongside my friend Ehud, who I deeply respect as a leader, as a statesman and as a warrior.

The first call I received from a foreign counterpart after I was sworn in as Secretary of Defense was from Ehud, and I have met with him more than any other Minister of Defense.

I agree with what he has said. The U.S.-Israel defense relationship is stronger than it has ever been before. And I share his commitment to strengthening that relationship even further.

Let me begin by publicly expressing my condolences to the people of Israel for the five Israeli citizens who were murdered this month while vacationing in Bulgaria, and the many others who were injured in that attack.

The attack is a reminder that both the United States and Israel continue to be threatened by violent extremism simply because of the values that we share.

The Israeli people should know that the United States stands with them in this fight and in the fight to ensure peace in this region, and that we have a rock-solid commitment to Israel's security and the security of its citizens.

This commitment, this partnership is more important than ever because of the real security challenges that we see emanating from this region, which are a focus of my discussions with Israeli leaders during this visit and a focus of this trip to the region.

On Israel's northern shore, its northern border, the Assad regime is engaged in brutal violence against its citizens, which is both an affront to our values and a threat to regional stability.

At the same time, Iran's pursuit of nuclear capabilities and its destabilizing activities, including its support for Assad, for Hezbollah and for international terrorism, poses a threat not only to Israel, but to the entire region.

The United States is also a focus of that threat as indeed the rest of the world.

On Syria, we firmly believe that a political transition is the best way forward, and we are urgently working with like-minded nations to pressure Assad and find a political solution in order to bring the violence, terrible violence, as well as the regime to an end.

On Iran, the United States and Israel share the same goal: preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. The most effective way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is for the international community to be united, proving to Iran that it will only make itself less secure if it continues to try to pursue a nuclear weapon.

We have been steadily applying more and more pressure against Tehran, focusing on diplomatic and economic sanctions, and I believe these steps are having an effect. But it is clear that we need to continue to apply maximum pressure. And make no mistake, we will.

Just yesterday, President Obama announced additional sanctions to further penalize and isolate Iran, building on the toughest sanctions that Iran has ever faced.

It's my responsibility as Secretary of Defense to provide the president with a full range of options, including military options, should diplomacy fail. President Obama has made clear that preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is a top national security priority by the United States and that all options -- all options -- are on the table.

The United States has made an enduring commitment to Israel's security, backed not only by our words, but by our deeds. The Iron Dome facility that you see behind me is one example of that commitment. Since Iron Dome has been deployed, it has been a game-changer for Israel's security. It has saved Israeli lives and it has achieved a better than 80 percent success rate against rockets fired on Israeli population centers.

Last March, there were 12 rocket attacks in this area -- 12 -- and this battery successfully intercepted every one of them, saving lives and preventing further escalation of conflict.

When I met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington last March, he told me something that I think makes the point: These missile shields do not start wars, they prevent wars. I strongly agree with the prime minister, and for that reason I'm proud of the Obama administration's strong record of support for Iron Dome and other rocket and missile defense systems.

We've already provided more than $200 million for Israel to acquire additional batteries. And last week the president announced an additional $70 million is being transferred to Israel for the current fiscal year.

We will seek additional funding in the years ahead, based on an annual assessment that we will make together of Israel's security requirements against this threat. My goal is to ensure -- to ensure that Israel has the funding it needs each year in order to produce these batteries that protect its citizens.

This cooperation on Iron Dome is only one part of our commitment to preserving and enhancing Israel's qualitative military edge, the bedrock principle guiding our defense relationship.

One other very important way that we are -- that we are involved with is through Israel's participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program. Israel is the only country, the only country in the Middle East participating in this program. And DoD's Joint Strike Fighter programs is working closely with Israel and Lockheed Martin on a package of enhancements to their Joint Strike Fighter. This will ensure Israel's unquestioned air superiority for years to come.

Let me close by noting that I am coming to the end of a trip that has also taken me to Tunisia and Egypt. This is clearly a time of dramatic change and upheaval in the Middle East and in Africa.

This time of change is also a time of opportunity -- opportunity for Israel to benefit from the development of other democracies in the region. The challenge for the United States is to try to help the people of this region achieve their goal of greater freedom and greater prosperity and to ensure the security of Israel and the region.

One important way to do that is to work towards a sustainable, comprehensive Middle East peace with a two-state solution.

Each time I visit Israel, I come away inspired by the extraordinary challenges the Jewish people have overcome in establishing this state and sustaining it in the face of war and in the face of other threats. There should be no doubt about the commitment of the United States to Israel's future security and to our deepening defense partnership.

Thank you once again, Ehud, for your partnership and for your friendship.

MIN. BARAK: Thank you. I will give you words in Hebrew with your permission.


Q: -- (inaudible) -- from Israeli Channel 10.

Mr. Secretary, you've made it clear time and again that you see no U.S. interest in Israel launching a military strike on Iran this year. Still, the Israel leadership is counting on U.S. support, diplomatic and military, should it decide to launch a strike in the coming weeks.

Can they count on it? Would the U.S. provide Israel with the required military and diplomatic umbrella if it launches a strike on Iran?

SEC. PANETTA: Look, I think we've said very clearly that we respect Israel's sovereignty and their independence, and the, you know, the -- their -- their effort to decide what is in their national security interest is something that must be left up to the Israelis.

As to future contingencies and future hypotheticals, I -- I don't -- I just don't want to engage in speculating what we will or won't do. I guess my hope is that, working together, since we have a common cause here, we are both interested in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and we have been working together and we will continue, hopefully, to work together to ensure that that never happens.

Q: Hello. Kevin Baron from Foreign Policy magazine.

Both of you today have expressed the closeness of the military relationship, and, Mr. Secretary, you said there should be no doubt about the U.S. commitment to Israel's security.

But there are doubts. And Governor Romney, representing large parts of the U.S. electorate, was just here saying that the U.S. should be doing more to protect Israel and more with its military to put pressure on Iran.

So for Mr. Barak, do you agree with those characterizations? Is the U.S. doing enough in your eyes or would you like to see more?

And since I'm pretty sure I know the answer from Mr. Panetta, why is the military not doing more? What are the reasons in your mind for -- for holding the line like you have?

MIN. BARAK: I noticed, I believe that you mentioned the candidate for presidency as well as the administration. And following the American code, I would not recommend on the different positions of competitors running -- people for -- for election in America.

I think that we have a long tradition of friendship with America running many administrations. I can count probably eight of them since Carter where I've been exposed to it personally and have seen it going deeper and deeper along the year, no matter which part of the -- which side of the political aisle in America was in power.

But (inaudible) that the relationship now with regard to our security is extremely deep and strong. Of course we expect it to be continued by the next administration upon the American election results. And we -- we strongly believe that it stems out of a deep background of shared values by our peoples and stems out from the very feeling of the American people. And I can witness here or bring my witness that it's the same on this side of the Atlantic. We also feel the same.

And I think that we are extremely thankful to the administration and to Secretary Panetta for what they are doing now. And we keep looking and watching developments all around the area, and as the Secretary said, Israel is always seeing the very crucial issues of its security and future as something that ultimately the Israeli government and only the Israeli government has to make decisions upon.

But we are not blind. We -- we are looking around. We watch all developments and try to predict most of the consequences. And of course taking into account the -- the American views, the -- the European views and the views of our neighborhood. But always (inaudible) to keep on and making sure that Iran will not turn nuclear. And when we say all the options are on the table, when the American's say all the options are on the table, we mean it and I believe that Americans means -- means it as well.

SEC. PANETTA: I think -- I think Minister Barak has said it. The United States and Israel have the strongest relationship when it comes to the military area that we have ever had. And that's true in a number of areas. We -- we continue to have very strong communications between the Defense Minister and I on almost every issue that is confronting this region, and beyond that, that is confronting the world. And we continue to have discussions not only with us, but between our military and the Israeli military.

We continue to have assistance, military aid that continues to be -- and financing that has -- that continues to be provided to the Israelis. We continue to strengthen their quality area in terms of their equipment to ensure that they always have a qualitative edge, and that -- that is made clear by the fact that they're purchasing the Joint Strike Fighter and the only country to be doing that in this region.

In addition to that, we've provided additional funding on Iron Dome and we will continue to provide funding for that so that Israel can develop its missile defenses. And in addition to that, we continue to have joint exercises between our militaries that -- that strengthen both sides.

So this is -- this is the strongest alliance that we have. They are -- they are a friend. We are Israel's friend. And we will continue to strengthen the military relationship, particularly at a time when we face so many threats abroad.

Q: Hello. (Inaudible) from the (inaudible) Daily, Israel. I would like to ask Secretary Panetta about Pollard. After 27 years in jail, Israeli spy Pollard (inaudible) U.S. security, if he will be released?

And I would like to ask both of you about talks with Iran. Isn't it time to declare that the talks of the P-5-plus-1 with Iran has failed?

Thank you.

SEC. PANETTA: With regards to the first issue, obviously that -- that rests with the -- with the administration to make a judgment as to what will or will not happen with regards to that individual. There's been a great deal of opposition about him being released because of what he did. But again that -- that decision rests with the -- with the White House as to what will or will not happen.

With regards to the issue of -- of -- of the effort to bring pressure on Iran and to try to draw them to the -- the table in order to negotiate a resolution, I think -- I think we have to exhaust -- and the prime minister has made this point -- we have to exhaust every -- every option, every effort, you know, before we resort to military action. I think that's important.

And to do that, you know, we have -- we have applied, the international community has applied very strong sanctions against them. We are ratcheting up those sanctions, as -- as made clear by the president's executive order and made clear by the European countries and others that are applying additional sanctions on Iran.

It's biting. It's having an impact there. And the result is that we did initiate the P-5-plus-1 negotiations. We have not, obviously, been able to reach any kind of agreement. But the key here is to keep putting the pressure on them to negotiate.

They have a choice. They have a choice to make. They can either negotiate in a way that tries to resolve these issues and has them abiding by international rules and requirements and -- and giving up on their effort to develop their -- their nuclear capability. That -- that's an effort we would be interested in working with them to try to negotiate.

But if they don't, and if they continue, and if they make the decision to proceed with a nuclear weapon, as the minister has pointed out, we have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen.

MIN. BARAK: We see both the sanctions and diplomacy going further than in the past and they have clearly certain impacts.

But to tell you the truth, we in Israel see the probability that it will lead the ayatollahs to gather around the table, look at each other eyes and tell each other that -- that the game is over, we have to give up our nuclear military program, the probability of this happening is very, extremely low.

And it's important to -- to notice that while sanctions are taking place and diplomacy takes -- takes place, it takes time, and in the meantime the Iranians are keeping enriching daily uranium, not just to -- to enlarge the -- the amount of (inaudible) enriched uranium they have, they are coming very close to having uranium enriched to 20 percent in an amount that comes closer to -- to the amount needed for a weapon. And they're continuing every day.

So it's not just a -- a -- a kind of passive symmetry. We are trying. We have nothing to lose. We have clearly something to lose by this stretched time upon which sanctions and diplomacy takes place because the Iranians are moving forward not -- not just in enrichment.

Thank you.

Q: Hello, (inaudible) with BBC News.

Secretary Panetta, is there an obligation, an understood obligation on the part of the U.S., if Israel were attacked by Iran?

And Minister Barak, Naftali Bennett has said to the BBC this morning that it seems like the Obama administration is more concerned with stopping Israel than stopping an Iranian bomb and only a credible U.S. threat would prevent an attack and Israel hasn't seen that yet. Can you respond?

SEC. PANETTA: Let me make clear that -- that we're committed to -- to the defense of Israel and to their security. And beyond that, I'm not going to discuss what contingencies we would or would not engage in were that to happen.

MIN. BARAK: I made it clear that the government of Israel and only the government of Israel will make the decisions about any issue that -- that touches the very core of our security interests and our future. I think that that's the way it should be run and that's the way we are going to run it. And beyond, -- (inaudible) Naftali Bennett?

That's it. Before we are delayed late.