Iran tops agenda as Pentagon chief visits Israel
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was on Wednesday to hold top-level talks in Israel expected to focus on ways of resolving the international standoff over Iran's disputed nuclear programme.
As the Pentagon chief touched down in Tel Aviv late on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave an interview in which he said he had not yet decided on whether to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran.
But at the same time, he warned that Israel would not rely on anyone else to guarantee its security -- not even Washington.
Speaking in Cairo before taking off for Tel Aviv, Panetta ruled out discussions about "potential attack plans" against Iran's nuclear programme, which Israel and much of the West believes is a bid to develop a bomb.
Tehran insists that its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful, but Israel says a nuclear Islamic republic would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state, and has refused to rule out a strike on Tehran's facilities.
"I think it's the wrong characterisation to say that we're going to be discussing potential attack plans," Panetta told reporters in Cairo. "What we are discussing are various contingencies on how we would respond."
Washington, he said, was continuing to "work on a number of options in that area." He did not give further details.
Speaking as he greeted the Pentagon chief in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak credited him with bolstering ties between the two nations.
"The defence ties between Israel and the United States are stronger and tighter than they have ever been and the credit now has to go, most of it, to you, Leon," he said.
Panetta also hailed the friendship between the two men, and said the current ties were "probably the strongest US-Israel defence relationship that we have had in history."
"It's because our countries have a strong bond, not only of friendship, but of security -- working together to make sure that we have the strongest defence, and that we can do everything we can to defend both of our countries," he said.
The two men were also expected to visit a battery of the Iron Dome missile defence system, after which Panetta was to head to Jerusalem for talks with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
Panetta last visited Israel in October when he held talks with Netanyahu and Barak, and also with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
His visit comes just weeks after a secret visit by US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who reportedly briefed Netanyahu on US contingency plans for a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, Haaretz newspaper reported earlier this week.
Israeli officials denied the report.
Shortly after Panetta's arrival, Netanyahu said he had not yet decided whether Israel would strike Iran.
"I have not taken a decision," he told Israel's private Channel 2 television.
"Israel's fate depends solely on us and no other country, however friendly," he said, in reference to the United States.
Panetta's arrival also coincided with Washington's imposition of fresh economic sanctions on Iran's oil sector.
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