Last updated: 20 January, 2012

US military chief in Israel for talks amid Iran tensions

US military chief General Martin Dempsey on Friday urged Israel to keep the channels of communication open with Washington amid concerns the Jewish state could launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

After talks with Defence Minister Ehud Barak on his first visit to Israel since taking office last October, Dempsey said both sides would benefit from greater engagement over regional issues, in an apparent reference to the Iranian nuclear standoff.

“We have many interests in common in the region in this very dynamic time and the more we can continue to engage each other, the better off we’ll all be,” he said, quoted by Barak’s office.

Israel fears a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state and has refused to rule out a resort to military action to pre-empt it, although earlier this week Barak said any such decision remained “very far away.”

Reports suggest Washington is against such a strike, and the US administration is understood to be putting pressure on Israel to hold off.

In the morning, Dempsey said Israel and Washington shared a “common challenge” and stressed US backing for the Jewish state in remarks addressed to Israel’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz.

“Your characterisation of the common challenge we face and the sacred trust we have to protect those values of freedom — I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Dempsey, whose comments were carried on Israel’s public radio.

“And I assure you that America is your partner in that regard,” said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who arrived late on Thursday for a flying visit.

He had an early morning meeting with Gantz before talks with Barak, after which he travelled to Jerusalem with the chief of staff to meet President Shimon Peres.

He concluded a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the day before leaving in the early evening.

Netanyahu’s bureau did not release a statement following the meeting, but Haaretz quoted the premier as telling Dempsey: “The international community has to squeeze Iran harder and faster to stop its nuclear programme.”

Peres’s office said that at the meeting with Dempsey and Gantz, they had “discussed the political-security developments in the Middle East and the world.”

“I am sure that we shall win this battle,” Peres said in remarks carried by public radio, apparently alluding to the Islamic republic.

“It is not only for the United States of America, not only for Israel. It is really a struggle to make the world a free place, a safe place for people.”

Israeli press reports said the visit was to focus on Western sanctions against Tehran that Netanyahu said earlier this week did not go far enough, as well as on the possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

“The main disagreement pertains to the possibility of a strike on the Iranian nuclear sites,” the Maariv daily said.

“While an increasing number of voices can be heard in Israel supporting such a move, US officials are trying to calm the atmosphere, and fear that Israel could act without informing them or only provide a warning shortly in advance.”

Quoting officials engaged in preparatory talks ahead of Dempsey’s visit, Maariv said they “would try to reach an understanding with the Americans and set a kind of red line based on various criteria, including timetables and actions on Iran’s part.”

Israel and its US ally, like many other Western governments, suspect Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability under cover of its civil programme, an ambition Tehran strongly denies.