U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, saying U.S. forces will act against Iran but only when all else fails. Panetta spoke to the top pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC.
Panetta told the annual conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Obama administration wants to give diplomacy a chance but he pledged military action if those efforts do not work.
“We prefer the diplomatic path, and as the prime minister has said - military action is the last alternative when all else fails. But make no mistake, when all else fails, we will act,” he said.
The U.S. defense secretary spoke a day after President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and appeared to make little headway in easing differences on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.
Israel has suggested it could attack Iranian nuclear facilities soon, while the U.S. administration wants to use sanctions and other forms of international pressure to convince Iran to stop what many countries believe is a quest to develop nuclear weapons.
Tehran says it is developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes.
Panetta on Tuesday reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. He said the Obama administration has made it a priority to boost Israel's military superiority because Washington - he said - has no better ally in the region.
“Even though we are facing serious fiscal constraints, U.S. security assistance to Israel has increased dramatically since this president took office," said Panetta. "This year, the president’s budget requests $3.1 billion in security assistance to Israel, compared to $2.5 billion in 2009.”
The increase has happened largely as part of a U.S. agreement to spend $30 billion on Israel’s security over a decade. That commitment was made between then-President George W. Bush in 2007.
The United States is providing Israel with leading-edge technology on missile interception, including the "Iron Dome" system that Panetta says stopped more than 30 rockets from Gaza last year.
The U.S. defense chief also said Washington will deliver the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet to Israel to help it maintain its air superiority.
The friendly tone of Panetta’s speech was in contrast to recent rifts between the Obama administration and the Israeli leadership on the Palestinian question.
Last October, on his first trip to Israel as secretary of defense, Panetta surprised Israeli officials by saying Israel risked diplomatic isolation by not entering negotiations with the Palestinians and improving ties with its neighbors in the region. Also on that trip, the defense chief called on Israel not to act unilaterally against Iran.