WASHINGTON: US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta began a five-day Mideast trip today to consult with the new Islamist leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and to meet with long-standing allies Israel and Jordan.
High on the agenda at each stop is expected to be the accelerating crisis in Syria, which potentially has grave implications for Israel. The Jewish state fears the unrest will spill over the border and that the long-quiet Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, will become a new Islamist front against Israel.
Syria has strong ties to Iran, Israel’s most fearsome enemy, and to Palestinian and Lebanese militants who have warred with Israel. Jordan’s worries include a potential refugee crisis on its border.
Panetta’s press secretary, George Little, said the trip is intended to affirm a US commitment to stability in the Middle East and North Africa at a time the US military is shifting more of its attention to Asia.
“That will require strengthening traditional alliances with countries like Israel and Jordan and building strong partnerships with new democratic governments,” Little said last week in previewing the trip.
Panetta will be in Jerusalem just days after a visit by US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has been highly critical of President Barack Obama’s approach to Israel.
Panetta is expected to highlight US cooperation with Israel on building more effective missile defences, including the Iron Dome system that is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells. That air defence system was developed in response to Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, who fired thousands of rockets, mostly short-range Katyushas, into northern Israel. The US has provided $205 million for the project, and on Friday, Obama announced the release of a further $70 million.
In Tunis, Panetta plans to meet his Tunisian counterpart as well as President Moncef Marzouki, leader of the small, secular Congress for the Republic party.