U.S. Defense Secretary to Visit Israel

WASHINGTON - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit Israel next week for a series of meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz on the strategic situation in the Middle East.

The visit, scheduled for April 17, is the first time a U.S. Defense Secretary will be visiting Israel in eight years.

American sources told Haaretz on Tuesday that the visit was decided and a date finalized, though an official announcement on the matter has not been made public.

The visit, which comes about a month after Peretz visited Washington, will also deal with bilateral defense ties between the U.S. and Israel.

Gates was appointed Defense Secretary less than six months ago, replacing Donald Rumsfeld. A planned visit of Rumsfeld to Israel in June 2006 was canceled last minute.

The last U.S. Defense Secretary to have visited Israel was William Cohen, who came in 1999, during the second Clinton administration.

The Gates visit is critical to helping heal the rift in the relations between the U.S. and Israel defense establishments, following the crisis that occured over Israeli's sale of defense equipment to China. In 2005, the U.S. defense establishment placed severe sanctions on Israel, which included restrictions on defense-related sales, joint projects and exchanges of information on advanced weapons systems.

Gates' main mission at this point is to oversea the renewed effort to stabilize Iraq, in light of President George Bush's decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in that country.

American sources told Haaretz yesterday that Gates is interested in hearing what the Israeli leadership thinks about the situation in Iraq. He is also planning to discuss tactics for dealing with the IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) employed by terrorists in Iraq, which have taken a toll on U.S. forces.

Among the bilateral issues to be discussed is Israel's wish to be included once more in the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) project for the new American strike fighter - from which it was excluded following the China crisis. Senior Israeli officials argued in their recent meetings with American counterparts that it is advisable to include some Israeli sub-systems in the new aircraft. However, the Americans were adamant that they do not intend to make further changes in the design and development of the aircraft.

The Israelis said they raised some of the lessons of the Lebanon war in conversations with their American colleagues and recommended that these should be studied before the JSF development program is finalized.

Another issue of interest to Gates and Israel, and a subject covered extensively last week by the New York Times, is Israel's opposition to the sale of advanced weapons systems to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.

The American defense establishment is determined to sell these systems to Arab states and will seek a compromise formula in order to prevent supporters of Israel in Congress from foiling the deal. Israel has also expressed interest in procuring a number of advanced systems from the U.S. and it is possible that Washington will agree to reconsider the sale of these to Israel in exchange for an easing of Israeli objections to the Saudi deal.