Barak - AP - March 24, 2011
Defense Minister Ehud Barak Photo by AP
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Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that Israel must find a creative formula for expressing regret instead of an apology for the commando raid that killed nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists aboard the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010.

In a meeting with new U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Washington on Thursday, Barak said, "We need to find a creative formula."

The Americans supported this position, appreciating that an expression of regret, without a formal apology, would prevent legal problems for Israeli officers and soldiers down the track.

They maintained that it is crucial for Israel and Turkey to mend ties. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said a few days prior to Barak's meeting that the Israel-Turkey relationship is "critical for regional stability."

Barak said Israel would rather the United Nations make a general statement than make the entire UN report public, which was postponed yet again this week in order to allow Israel and Turkey to continue negotiating toward a detente in their relations. Such a statement, according to Barak, would need to "suffice both sides" and say something like, "If there were mistakes made during the raid on the Mavi Marmara, we regret that."

Barak also discussed with Panetta Israel's regional threats, including Iran's nuclear program, weapons smuggling in Gaza, Hamas' gaining strength and the events in Syria. He expressed concern that Iran feels less pressure as a result of the regional turmoil, despite that the Assad regime's troubles might weaken the "axis of radicalism."

Panetta stressed the U.S. commitment to Israel's security.

According to Barak's aides, Panetta said he plans to visit Israel in October, calling Israel the United States' "most important ally."

Commenting on comments made by a group of former Israeli officials and diplomats on a visit to Washington on Monday, who claimed that Israel's 1967 borders are defensible, Barak said, "It's clear that the Palestinians need territory for their state, but (U.S.) President (Barack) Obama was very clear in his speeches about the principle: '67 borders with mutually agreed swaps. It's not new." Barak added, "We can't ignore the peace process because the world will create a different paradigm for us and we'll get dragged in. It will become de-facto delegitimization."

While U.S. lawmakers prepared to vote on a plan by House of Representatives Chairman John Boehner overnight – intended to cut spending as a precondition to a Congress vote on raising the national debt ceiling – but was later cancelled, Barak and his fellow Knesset members knew economic struggles awaited them, too, in Israel.

When asked whether the current protests over housing prices could bring about the collapse of the government, Barak said, "I don't think so, but the government must act to address the problems."

During his brief visit to Washington, Barak also met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

Barak is set to meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday in New York.