U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that the latest spike in Mideast violence must not derail the peace process and he urged bold diplomatic action by Israelis and Palestinians.
While Gates condemned the bombing of a bus-stop in Jerusalem and said Israel has the right to defend itself, he sought to use his visit to the region to try and convince both sides that negotiating peace is a way to get ahead of the wave of populist uprisings sweeping the region.
"I know there may be a temptation during this time of great uncertainty in the region to be more cautious about pursuing the peace process," Gates said, as he stood next to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "But in my meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, I carry a different message -- that there is a need and an opportunity for bold action to move toward a two-state solution."
And he said the U.S. stands ready to support the process in any way it can.
Gates' visit to Israel comes as unrest continues to ripple across the region as people strike out against authoritarian regimes. The United States currently is leading a military operation in Libya, and there have been violent uprisings in Syria and Yemen.
A senior defense official said Gates is making the argument that the best way to stay ahead of the populist movement and tamp down some of the opponents' criticisms is to negotiate peace and remove that issue from the discourse.
During a news conference with Gates, Barak responded that Israel must respond when its citizens are targets of indiscriminate attacks. And he said that while his country is determined to bring tranquility back to the region, it can't be done "in this tough neighborhood" without the use of force from time to time.
Gates agreed that no sovereign state can tolerate having rockets fired at its people. But, he added that "we don't want to do anything that allows extremists or others to divert the narrative of reform that's going on in virtually all the countries of the region."
The latest spike in attacks began Wednesday with a bus-stop bombing in Jerusalem, followed by Israeli strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza. The events have heightened tensions and added to Israel's anxiety over the wave of rebellion in the region.
The senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the unrest in Egypt and other nearby nations has rattled the pillars of Israeli security, which include peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.
There are worries about the new government forming in Egypt and whether the eventual leaders would be as committed to peace with Israel as deposed President Hosni Mubarak was, the official said. He said there are also concerns that the unrest in the Arab world could undermine Jordan's stability.
On Thursday both Barak and Gates told reporters they believe Egypt remains committed to its peace agreement with Israel.
Gates flew to Tel Aviv from Cairo, where he urged Egyptian authorities to give new political organizations time to organize as the country begins to take tentative steps toward democracy. He also met with military leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and praised the Egyptian military for protecting protesters during the rallies that led to Mubarak's ouster.
Gates also met Thursday with President Shimon Peres, and expressed the same commitment to Israel and sympathy for the attack. On Friday, Gates is scheduled to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.