First Published: 2007-04-19

Gates meets Olmert on regional tour

Israeli PM praises Gates for becoming first US defence secretary to visit Israel since 2000.


Middle East Online

By Carlos Hamann JERUSALEM

Olmert shaking hands with Gates

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday after vowing Washington will keep up with its security plan in Iraq despite Baghdad bombings that killed 190 people in a single day.

Olmert praised Gates for becoming the first US defence secretary to visit key ally Israel since 2000 on the third leg of a Middle East tour aimed at countering the influence of the Jewish state's arch-foe Iran and at shoring up support for Iraq.

The visit "gives us an opportunity to speak to the most powerful man in the defence establishment in the United States of America, which is extremely important to us," Olmert said in English at the start of their talks.

"I, in my previous career, had very good friendships and professional relationships with the military and intelligence services," said Gates, a former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. "I look forward to continuing that relationship."

The defence secretary arrived in Israel Wednesday on a third leg of a regional tour, which has also taken him to Jordan and Egypt. Early on Thursday he met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but no statements were released following the encounter.

On touching down in Tel Aviv, he went straight into a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Amir Peretz, emerging later to condemn a barrage of car bombs in Baghdad which left 190 people dead.

The carnage, he told a joint press conference with Peretz, would not deter Washington from pursuing its two-month-old security plan in Iraq.

"We have anticipated from the very beginning... that the insurgency and others would increase the violence to make the people of Iraq believe the plan is a failure," Gates said. "We intend to persist to show that it is not."

He also said that diplomacy was the "preferable focus" for dealing with Tehran's nuclear programme, which the West fears is a cover for building an atomic bomb and Iran says is solely for civilian purposes.

"It's important to deal with the Iran nuclear problem with diplomacy which is working," Gates said.

Israel, widely considered to be the sole if undeclared nuclear power in the Middle East, considers Iran its top foe following repeated calls by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.

Gates's trip is also aimed at reinvigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- a top issue in his talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

His discussions in Israel have also touched on Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and Syria.

Israel waged a month-long war against the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon in 2006 and accuses the militia of trying to re-arm for a possible future conflict by smuggling weapons across the porous border with Syria.

Gates said Washington had diplomatic relations with Syria but "that doesn't mean that we approve of much of anything that they do."

"Frankly Syrian activities, both in allowing suicide bombers to cross their border into Iraq, where they kill both Iraqis and coalition partners, their allowing of a resupply of Hezbollah in Lebanon and a variety of other activities, are of great concern to us," he said.

Gates had been expected to reassure Israel over planned US sales of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, according to US officials.

The weapons package, aimed at countering Iran's growing strength in the region, reportedly includes tanks, warships and advanced air defence systems valued at between five and 10 billion dollars. Its exact content and value are still under consideration, US defence officials said.


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