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American Forces Press Service

Panetta Visits Middle East, NATO to Reaffirm Relationships

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Oct. 2, 2011 – In his first visit as defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta will meet with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders and will travel to NATO headquarters this week to reaffirm the Defense Department’s security relationships, he said tonight.

“The main purpose of this trip,” the secretary told reporters traveling with him, “is to try to reaffirm our security relationship with important allies and with important partnerships that we have in that part of the world.”

On his first stop, the secretary will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including his counterpart in Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and separately with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

With both leaders, Panetta will discuss the strong bilateral defense relationship between the United States and Israel, major security issues across the region and on Israel’s borders, and the dramatic shifts taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Israel, Panetta said, it’s important “to reaffirm our strong security relationship” and to “make clear that we will protect their qualitative military edge, and that … as they take risks for peace that we will be able to provide the security they will need” to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

The secretary said he will urge Israel to “participate in the peace process,” and, in meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, he said, he will “make the same kind of request.”

“These difficult issues that need to be resolved are best resolved at the negotiating table by all of them participating and working on what are obviously difficult issues that can only be resolved through negotiations,” Panetta said.

With the Israelis, Panetta also will discuss the situation in Iran and security threats from that nation.

Talks will address what steps are needed to ensure that Iran does not pursue either its nuclear capabilities or the kind of assistance that it’s provided to terrorists in that part of the world.

It is best that the United States, Israel and all the nations in the region that share common concerns about Iran and its intentions work together, Panetta noted, to make sure everything possible is done to convince Iran not to pursue its nuclear capabilities, undermine regional stability, promote terrorism, not to try to undermine stability in that region or promote terrorism.

“The most effective way to deal with Iran is not on a unilateral basis,” the secretary said, “[but] to unify an effort to confront Iran directly that they have to change their ways.”

Panetta said in light of regional changes brought about by the Arab Spring, the United States is willing to help Israel try to “improve relations with some of its neighboring countries … particularly with countries like Turkey and Egypt.”

In Egypt, Panetta will meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to reaffirm the Defense Department’s security relationship, he said.

Panetta and the Egyptian officials will discuss topics that include the Egyptian military’s efforts to oversee a credible and transparent transition, a commitment to a strong and long-term defense relationship and a continued commitment to assist the Egyptian armed forces.

“I want to thank General Tantawi for the help he provided [in September] pursuant to my request when the Israeli embassy was under siege,” the secretary said. “He was willing to respond and respond quickly to try to help in that situation and I deeply appreciate that.”

Panetta said he will urge the Egyptians “to proceed with putting the election process in place so Egypt can move toward a civilian government that represents the will of the people, represents their desires and represents their hopes.”

He added, “Whatever assistance … we can provide to help them in that process, we certainly are willing to do.”

In Brussels, Panetta will deliver remarks on his initial impressions of the NATO alliance and laying out his ideas on the road ahead, including lessons to be drawn from operations in Afghanistan and Libya, and meeting the challenges of maintaining effective capabilities for the alliance in an era of financial austerity.

“The primary areas we will focus on are Libya and the lessons learned from the Libyan experience,” Panetta said. “There’s a lot of good obviously that came out of that operation, but there are also some important lessons to learn for the future.”

At NATO headquarters, the secretary will attend a series of meetings among the 28 NATO allies to discuss Libya and other ongoing operations, and with coalition partners to discuss the International Security Assistance Force and the transition that’s under way in Afghanistan.

Panetta said Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of ISAF and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, will join him at NATO and provide a summary of the situation in Afghanistan.

“I look forward to talking with my NATO partners as to how we can best proceed in the future in order to ensure that Afghanistan remains stable,” the secretary said.

Panetta said he and the NATO alliance partners will discuss budget cutbacks that every nation faces.

“It’s very important now as we face those budget constraints to try to develop approaches that allow us to share capabilities, allow us to share technologies and allow us to work together closely in order to ensure that NATO can fulfill its role of providing security,” he added.

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