U.S. defence secretary to visit Israel - officials
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates plans to visit Israel on July 27 for talks likely to focus on Iran's nuclear ambitions and U.S.-Israeli strategic ties, officials involved in planning the trip said on Sunday, Reuters reported.
As the second cabinet-level representative of the Obama administration to be hosted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gates could also lobby for a resolution to the bilateral dispute over the future of West Bank settlements.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell declined to confirm the trip or what might be on Gates's agenda.
"We don't talk about the secretary's trips, wherever they may be, until such time as we are ready to announce them and nor should anyone else," Morrell said.
"I would not confirm or deny travel plans," he added. "It is not appropriate and it can endanger the secretary and those traveling with him."
Gates has voiced sympathy for Israel's concerns about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, but has also signalled unwillingness to see the Israelis launch pre-emptive strikes on their arch-foe that could destabilise the region.
The Obama administration has spoken of a need for tougher diplomacy with Tehran, along with reassuring Israel on security.
"We expect Iran to be the main issue. There is obviously a value in a show of Americans and Israelis closing ranks about Iran," said one official about the visit, asking not to be identified because a formal announcement has yet to be made.
The right-wing Netanyahu government says neutralising the perceived threat from Iran is key to Israeli-Arab peacemaking. But the United States wants parallel progress in bids to set up a Palestinian state that would take in the occupied West Bank.
"This (Gates visit) may be an American attempt to reassure Israel on Iran as part of Washington's pressure for movement on the Palestinian track," the official said.
Iran says its uranium enrichment is aimed at generating electricity but the West suspects is programme could be used to develop weapons.
Fiercely anti-Israeli rhetoric from Tehran and support for Islamist guerrilla groups arrayed along the Jewish state's borders have stirred fears of a regional war.