By Barbara Starr
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visits the Middle East this week, he will start in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began. But he’ll move quickly into the security hot spots about which everyone is worried.
The sensitive part of the trip begins in Cairo, when Panetta will have his first meeting with newly elected President Mohamed Morsy and Egyptian military leaders, reminding everyone that the United States wants to see a full transition to civilian rule.
Then comes Israel and Jordan, where the dual crises of Syria and Iran have captured everyone’s attention.
In Jordan, the government there is not just worried about the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons just over the border, but also the unending flow of refugees that is stretching the U.S. ally to the limit.
But it is in Israel where all of this could turn into a full-blown security crisis for Panetta. The Israelis have openly threatened to take action against Syria’s chemical stockpiles if they feel threatened. On Iran, Panetta feels he has succeeded in persuading the Israelis not to move too quickly to attack Iran’s nuclear program, a senior U.S. official tells CNN. “We have told them we have their back.”
Panetta has put the U.S. Navy into play to make that case.
The war in Iraq is over, and Afghanistan is winding down. So why does the Navy have more than 20 combat ships, including two aircraft carrier battle groups with more than 100 combat aircraft, sailing through the region and as many as three other warships at any one time off the Mediterranean coast of Israel?
The answer of course is Iran and the threat of its nuclear and missile program.
The way the thinking goes is that if Israel feels compelled to attack Iran and Tehran then strikes out in retaliation, the U.S. Navy will keep the oil shipping lanes open. Why else send four minesweepers to the region on top of everything else? Those antimissile ships in the Mediterranean could be used to counter Iran missiles aimed at Israel.
But Israel and the United States have other worries in the Sinai.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned that the desert border between Israel and Egypt could become an "operational base" for jihadists if security is not maintained. Israel has raised concerns about the region in the wake of the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government last year.
In an interview with CNN, Clinton said the problem was discussed at length during her meetings in Egypt and Israel. There is "the potential of jihadists and terrorists taking up an operational base in Sinai," Clinton said in the interview. "We think this is a dangerous situation for both Egypt and Israel. It is also dangerous for Americans. We have Americans who are part of the multinational force that observes the continuation of the monitoring (of the) Camp David Accord. We have Americans in the Sinai. We've had a few concerns about their safety."
Israeli officials told CNN's Security Clearance recently that Egypt needs to get a handle on terror cells in the Sinai. Israel is extremely concerned about cross-border attacks over the past year or so, including a deadly attack last August. In that incident, a group of militants engaged in a string of terror strikes on buses, civilian vehicles and soldiers 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) north of the resort city of Eilat, Israel, leaving eight people dead.