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ARLINGTON, Va. — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates travels to the Middle East this weekend for a high-profile visit emphasizing the Pentagon’s view that Jerusalem and Washington are on the same page regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Gates will be in Israel on Monday to meet with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak for what the secretary has called a “routine” visit.

But there’s plenty to discuss. This is the first visit of a U.S. defense chief in 2½ years, and Israel has a new administration of its own. Netanyahu was elected back to Israel’s highest office in April and already has traveled to the White House to make clear his views on the threat of Iranian nuclear ambitions, terrorist organizations in the region, and Israel’s latest posture toward peace talks with Palestinians.

A senior U.S. defense official told Pentagon reporters on Friday that both Israel and the U.S. believe Tehran is one to three years away from producing nuclear components that advance the final goal of weaponized material.

Where the allies differ is on how long to wait for Iran’s response to President Barack Obama’s offer of unconditional talks, which was made months ago.

“We’ve asked the Israelis to be patient, to allow us to try to have diplomacy work,” said the Pentagon official. “The secretary is not going there to roll out a map and do contingency planning for some strike on Iran.”

The U.S. wants a response from Tehran by September, Obama has said, which is timed to coincide with the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad perennially has used that pulpit to blast the U.S. in fiery speeches and brash interviews.

“We’re waiting to see how the Iranians respond,” the official said. “But we’re not anywhere near the military strike option.”

He said Israel’s defense and security leaders are skeptical, but ultimately support the diplomatic approach.

“They’re antsy,” he said, “but they’re not telling us, ‘Don’t do engagement.’ They’re telling us they don’t think it’s going to work. But there’s a difference in that. They say: Try. We’re all for you trying, but you need to set some time horizon on it because we don’t want the Iranians to talk, talk, talk …”

Israel is keeping busy anyway during the wait. In July, it sent a submarine and two warships through the Suez Canal.

The move “demonstrates it wouldn’t take a short time that Israel can reach out and touch Iran,” according to David Schenker, who was an adviser to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and now is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But Washington is concerned that a strike on Iran could unleash a broader retaliation.

“We will be held responsible for an Israeli attack,” Schenker said. “We, along with the Israelis, become a target. And so it’s not just a matter of Iranian missiles falling on Tel Aviv. It is a matter of American facilities being vulnerable, American targets abroad, U.S. ships in the gulf, Israeli targets abroad, our other allies being targeted, not only by Iran, but by their proxy, Hezbollah. So I think it’s a broader and more significant threat.”

In visits unrelated to Gates’ mission, Obama’s national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, and special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, will also be in Israel. Their efforts, the official said, would focus more specifically on advancing the Palestinian peace process.

From Jerusalem, Gates will visit King Abdullah of Jordan, who recently opened a “state of the art” special operations training facility and is considered a key partner in training Iraqi security forces.


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