Leading defense officials from the United States and Israel, meeting in Israel this week, raised the controversial attack on the U.S. ship USS Liberty, by Israel, in June 1967.
The attack has caused considerable controversy over the years despite both governments being reticent to publicly discuss the affair.
It is rare that defense officials from either side discuss the attack which killed 34 U.S. service personnel, and wounded 171 others. In talks this week however between the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, together with other senior Israeli and American military officials, the subject was well and truly on the table.
According to a Haaretz newspaper report on Friday, quoting a source from the Israeli delegation, the Liberty attack was raised in talks regarding Iran, and U.S. operations in the Middle East. While it was stressed that the parties did not discuss operational coordination, it was agreed by both sides that the United States and Israel would want to avoid any sort of 'mistaken confrontation' such as that which occurred when Israeli forces attacked the USS Liberty.
Why Mullen was in Israel at all remains a mystery, and the fact that he spent two days there is even more surprising. Not only that but this week’s visit to Israel was the second since December by the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs. Further it followed a visit to Israel last week by two four-star U.S. Generals. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, was in Israel for high-level talks with his Israeli counterpart, Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom. It was their third meeting in eight months. Around the middle of last week Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, landed in Tel Aviv. He was there as the guest of OC Ground Forces Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi. In contrast to Roughead's visit, which was covered by the media, the Israeli military refused to answer questions about the Wallace visit.
The Mullen visit has been downplayed by the Pentagon but it was reported in the Israeli press the Joint Chiefs chairman cut short his trip to Europe to fly to Tel Aviv. Yet last week Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell at a press briefing told reporters, “As for Chairman Mullen's trip, I believe it's been months at least that it's been, well, it's been months on the schedule. It is, I believe, part of his normal outreach to strong allies of ours across the globe, Israel being one of our closest and strongest. But I believe this is a routine opportunity for Chairman Mullen to engage his counterpart in Israel on military-to-military matters, as he does in much of his travels around the world.”
Mullen is scheduled to meet with his Israeli counterpart again in a few weeks time in Washington. It will be the fourth time the men will have met since December. The intense discussions between the two military powers comes just two weeks after it was reported the Israel Air Force had conducted one of the largest aerial exercises in its history. The IAF reportedly flew one hundred F-15 and F-16 fighter jets - supported by midair fuel tankers and rescue helicopters - 1,500 kilometers westward over the Mediterranean Sea. This just happens to equal the distance eastward from Israel to Iran's nuclear facilities.
While Mullen this week was playing down threats of a military strike against Iran, by either the United States or Israel, speculation is rising that an attack will be carried out by Israel after the U.S. election in November.
Whilst U.S. officials, including Mullen, are pouring cold water on the idea, none have told Israel publicly that the U.S. would not condone such an attack.
Given the opportunity of squashing the speculation last week, the United States’ top defense official, William H. Gates, refused to address the topic. On June 26 at a press conference Gates was asked,” just curious to what extent you're worried that Israel may take preemptive military action against Iran with or without the support of the United States?”
Gates: “I'm not going to talk about a hypothetical.”