Washington — Four decades in the political limelight have made newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta a familiar and trusted figure to the Jewish and pro-Israeli communities.
A middle-of-the-road politician known for his management skills, Panetta has taken the helm at the Pentagon at a time when defense cooperation between the United States and Israel is as strong as ever, a trend that should continue under his guidance, Israeli and American officials say.
During his recently completed stint as CIA director, Panetta worked closely with Israeli intelligence, which reportedly has shared information about Iran and about terror threats.
“It is important to understand that despite differences on Middle East policy, the military and intelligence relations between the U.S. and Israel were extremely strong,” said Jim Colbert, policy director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “Director Panetta was closely involved on these issues.”
Despite Panetta’s strong relationship with Israel, the security relationship between the two states could still be heading into troubled waters as each side decides how to deal with the nuclear threat posed by Iran.
Panetta already entered the fray on Iran when he made an unannounced visit to Israel in January 2010 as CIA chief. According to press reports, he warned the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against venturing into a unilateral attack against Iranian nuclear sites. Panetta was later quoted as saying that Netanyahu “understands that if Israel goes it alone it will mean trouble.”
The warning that Panetta carried was reiterated publicly shortly afterward, by Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Both Israel and the United States have made a point of denying any discord on Iran. Israeli leaders made clear that, for now, they support the administration’s drive to influence Iran through international sanctions.
As CIA director, Panetta did not take the Iranian threat lightly. Although his focus was on Afghanistan, an issue that provided him with his highest achievement to date — the killing of Osama bin Laden — he also oversaw a reform process in the CIA that led to the changing of the official stance of the United States toward Iran’s nuclear program. Under Panetta, the CIA revised its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which had originally concluded that Iran was not aspiring to achieve nuclear weapons. The intelligence-working assumption Panetta is leaving behind in the CIA is that Iran is indeed in pursuit of military nuclear capabilities.
The Pentagon did not respond to request to interview Panetta for this article.
Panetta, who took over at the Pentagon on July 1, comes to the post after a long career in public life that has growing links to the Jewish community.
A son of Italian immigrants, Panetta took his first steps in politics on the Republican side, where he served in the Nixon administration, working on civil rights issues. Frustrated by what he saw as a rightward turn in the GOP, Panetta switched sides and ran for Congress as a Democrat in his home district in California. He served nine terms and won the influential position of chairman of the House Budget Committee before being asked by President Clinton to be his White House chief of staff.
At first, Panetta showed practically no sign of interest in Jewish issues.
“He didn’t stand out on issues that the Jewish community worked on,” recalled Doug Bloomfield, who at the time was a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Panetta had little to do with issues relating to Israel and was focused mainly on government budget concerns. “He has a reputation of a no-nonsense guy,” Bloomfield added.
That changed to some extent during his years in Inside the Beltway Democratic politics. Panetta shared a house in Washington with a prominent Jewish roommate, Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer. This partnership helped lead to Panetta’s first visit to Israel.
In 1991, Schumer helped put together a congressional mission to Israel, organized by the Anti-Defamation League. Panetta was the senior congressman in the group, which also included Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat George Miller and Rep. Martin Russo, an Illinois Democrat. Both Miller and Russo were also roommates of Schumer and Panetta.
The numbers cruncher made an immediate positive impression on the Israelis.
“He was very open and very interested,” recalled Jess Hordes, the former ADL Washington director who accompanied the group in Israel. Panetta, a devout Catholic, showed special interest in Israel’s Christian religious sites. “He was very sympathetic to Israel, its story and its people,” Hordes added. Panetta’s immediate challenge as secretary of defense involves dollars. He entered the Pentagon just as the White House announced plans to shave $400 billion off the defense budget. Panetta, who spent the better part of his career advocating budget discipline, will now be tasked with accepting the needs for spending restriction in a government branch that in recent years was seen as immune to cuts.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org