Iran, Syria top Panetta's agenda in Israel

ROBERT BURNS
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Defense Leon Panetta is welcomed upon his arrival in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, July 31, 2012. Panetta is on a four day trip to the Middle-East with stops in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan before returning to Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Wilson, Pool)

Defense Leon Panetta is welcomed upon his arrival in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, July 31, 2012. Panetta is on a four day trip to the Middle-East with stops in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan before returning to Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Wilson, Pool)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's threats to attack Iran and the violence convulsing Syria top the agenda of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's meetings Wednesday with Israeli government leaders.

Panetta arrived in Israel on Tuesday after meeting in Cairo with Egypt's new president and its military chief.

In Cairo, Panetta denied Israeli press reports that he planned to share with the Israelis any U.S. plans for military action against Iran. He said the reports gave a "wrong characterization" of what he and the Israeli leaders were expected to discuss.

He said his talks in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be "more about what is the threat we are confronting" in Iran's nuclear program and about sharing intelligence information.

Iran says its nuclear work is for civilian energy uses, but suspicions that the Islamic republic will use enriched uranium for nuclear weapons has resulted in international sanctions and saber-rattling from Israel, which perceives a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. The United States has discouraged Israel from a unilateral, pre-emptive military strike on Iran, but has said it would keep all options available.

"What we are discussing are various contingencies and how we would respond," Panetta said. Asked whether any such contingencies include plans for potential military action against Iran, he said, "We obviously continue to work on a number of options in that area."

The Panetta visit comes just days after U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney met with top Israeli officials about Iran and other issues. Romney has accused the Obama administration of being too soft on Iran and not providing sufficient support to Israel.

Netanyahu told Israeli Channel 2 TV on Tuesday that despite reservations about an Iranian attack among former Israeli security officials and Israel's current army chief, the country's political leadership would make the final decision on any attack.

"I see an ayatollah regime that declares what it has championed: to destroy us," Netanyahu said. "It's working to destroy us, it's preparing nuclear weapons to destroy us. ... If it is up to me, I won't let that happen."

With "matters that have to do with our destiny, with our very existence, we do not put our faith in the hands of others, even our best of friends," Netanyahu said, hinting that Israel might act alone despite American misgivings.

Netanyahu said both Romney and Obama have said "Israel has the right to defend itself."

On Monday, while in Tunisia on the first leg of his trip, Panetta argued for giving international economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure more time to persuade Iran to change course on the nuclear issue.

While in Israel Panetta also planned to inspect and get briefed on an air defense system known as Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells such as those that have been fired into the Jewish state in recent years from Islamic militants linked to Iran and based in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Obama last week announced he was releasing an additional $70 million in military aid for Israel, a previously announced move that appeared timed to upstage Romney's trip to Israel. The stepped-up U.S. aid, first announced in May, will go to help Israel expand production of the Iron Dome system.

The Panetta visit to Israel comes at a critical time, with the U.S. considering more direct involvement in Syria's civil war and weighing its course on Iran.

Panetta acknowledged Monday that international sanctions have not pressured Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But the Obama administration thinks tougher sanctions eventually will compel Iran to submit and it doesn't want Israel to attack prematurely.

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Associated Press writers Amy Teibel and Daniel Estrin in contributed to this report.

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