US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Tuesday evening for talks with senior Israeli officials, with Iran’s nuclear drive and the escalating violence in Syria topping the agenda.
Panetta began a five-day tour of the Middle East with a visit to Tunisia on Sunday and Monday. While there, he acknowledged that economic sanctions on Iran have thus far failed to deter the Islamic Republic from its nuclear ambitions. The defense secretary has also scheduled stops in Egypt and Jordan.
While in Israel, Panetta is expected to urge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak not to carry out a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but to give sanctions and diplomacy more time.
“These sanctions are having a serious impact in terms of the economy in Iran,” he told reporters during a visit to the North Africa American Military Cemetery, where 2,841 U.S. servicemen killed in the North Africa campaign against Nazi Germany in 1942-1943 are buried.
“And while the results of that may not be obvious at the moment, the fact is that they [the Iranians] have expressed a willingness to negotiate [with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China] and they continue to seem interested in trying to find a diplomatic solution,” he said.
“What we all need to do is to continue the pressure on Iran, economically and diplomatically … to negotiate and to ultimately do what’s right in joining the international family,” Panetta added.
Panetta is also expected to discuss with Israeli leaders the civil war in Syria, where the uncertain status — and future — of the Assad regime’s massive stockpile of chemical weapons has sparked concern throughout the region.
Panetta’s visit follows a series of trips to Israel by senior US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, in recent weeks.
Opposition leader and former defense minister and chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz reiterated in an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday that he too opposed the idea of a preemptive Israeli strike at this time.
“Will an Israeli strike be effective? I believe not. Will a strike bring about regional instability? I believe so,” said Mofaz.