US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday the Iron Dome missile defense system was a sign of “unprecedented cooperation” between Washington and Jerusalem.
Speaking from Tunis ahead of a visit to Israel, Panetta also said he wanted to expand the two countries’ joint efforts, a likely reference to a bill signed over the weekend granting $70 million in US aid for more anti-missile batteries.
“We have achieved a level of defense cooperation that is unprecedented in our history,” Panetta said. “And my goal is to deepen that relationship even further.”
While in Israel, Panetta plans to visit an Iron Dome air defense battery, which uses technology developed in part with U.S. support to shoot down short-range rockets. Israel has suffered thousands of rocket attacks from Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in recent years.
The air defense system, called Iron Dome, has been an important success and serves to deter attacks from Iranian proxies, Panetta said.
On Friday, US President Barack Obama signed into a law a congressional bill granting Israel $70 million in US aid to develop new Iron Dome batteries.
“By signing this bill, everyone will understand that the US is committed to Israel’s safety,” Obama said during the White House signing ceremony.
Panetta also addressed the Iranian threat, saying Israel and the US were working together on the issue.
“As the president has made clear, we respect their sovereignty and their ability to make decisions on their security,” he said. “But at the same time, we have developed a very close partnership with regards to dealing with threats in the region including dealing with Iran.”
Panetta said he believes Israeli leaders still support an international campaign of economic, political and diplomatic pressure on Iran to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“My view is that they have not made any decisions with regards to” attacking Iran, he said.
During his visit, Panetta will meet with Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak — for the ninth time in a year according to Bloomberg News — and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The visit comes amid swirling rumors over a recent visit by White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who reportedly briefed Netanyahu on an American attack plan in case diplomatic efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions fall short. Netanyahu denied the report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.