WASHINGTON – Frustrated over a stall in an arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Obama once questioned the necessity of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this month.
Panetta was confirming a report from Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who attributed the claim to him in an article on Obama’s foreign policy doctrine published last March.
The former Pentagon chief said the White House, at the time, was deeply concerned that Israel was preparing to unilaterally strike Iran. Simultaneously, the administration was also hoping to complete with Riyadh a significant sale of fighter jets.
According to US law, the Defense Department must ensure that weapons sales to Mideast nations must comport with an American guarantee of Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the region.
“We were going through a lot of contortions in order to deal with this issue, to develop the kind of technical responses that you have to develop in order to make sure that you protect Israel’s qualitative edge,” Panetta told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at an event on June 6.
“And it’s not easy [to protect], okay– it’s not easy. It’s difficult. And the president kept asking, ‘why can’t we get this damn sale done?’ And every time I’d go in and say, ‘look, we’re working our way through it. We’ll get it done. But it’s not easy.'”
The president, Panetta said, then “reflected some anger about why the hell do we have to do this in the first place. And I said, ‘because we made that obligation, and because it is important, particularly with our relationship with Israel, that we protect that.’ And look, I think he understood that. But like all presidents, you sometimes get pissed off.”
At the event, Panetta emphasized the importance of the US-Israel relationship and said that the next president of the United States should work to shore up relations, which have frayed between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He reserved particular praise for Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, who Panetta worked with when he served as CIA chief. Dagan “came out of central casting” for the role, Panetta quipped, and was a “tough son of a bitch”– meant in the kindest way possible