TEL AVIV (JTA) – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to Israel demonstrates the strength of bilateral strategic ties in the face of Iran’s nuclear program and mounting speculation that Syria may take up arms against the Jewish state.For Jerusalem, the two-day visit by Gates that began April 18 also helps lay to rest tensions with the Pentagon over two Israeli arms deals with China.Gates met with his Israeli counterpart, Amir Peretz, as part of a regional tour that also took him to Jordan and Egypt. He is to hold talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday.”I was surprised to learn as I began to prepare for this visit that I was the first secretary of defense to visit in almost eight years,” Gates told reporters. “I think the fact that I have come here in the end of my fouth month as secretary illustrates the importance that I attach to our relationship with Israel.” Gates’ predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, was expected to visit Israel two years ago but canceled, reportedly amid U.S. anger at Israeli maintenance work on combat drones bought by China. The last defense secretary to visit was William Cohen, in 1999, just before the Pentagon pressed Israel into scrapping a major sale of advanced radars to China. Washington’s official line in such issues is that bolstering the Chinese military could threaten Taiwan, a U.S. ally. But some defense analysts see an effort by the United States to ensure that American arms firms keep an edge over Israeli competitors. Still, Israel has made efforts to mollify Washington by reshuffling top Defense Ministry officials and adopting new controls on arms exports. “America has always been our most important friend, but when it comes to the Pentagon, things have not been good in recent years,” an Israeli defense official said. “Hosting Gates is our way of showing that things are back on course at what is a very critical time for the region.”Gates, a former CIA director, is widely perceived as less hawkish on Middle East issues than Rumsfeld. Gates has been identified with critics of the neoconservative movement who want the Bush administration to engage, rather than isolate, Syria and Iran in order to find a way out of the Iraqi quagmire.During his Senate confirmation hearing in December, Gates spoke of Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal as a fact, raising eyebrows among veteran diplomats used to Washington playing along with Jerusalem’s refusal to confirm or deny that it has nukes. In Tel Aviv, Gates took a tough line on Israel’s foes. Syria has made headlines recently for its calls on Israel to accept a Saudi plan for Israeli-Arab peace and its veiled threats to go to war if this diplomacy leads to a dead end. While Peretz said Israel would explore all potential avenues to peace, Gates noted the belligerent regional role by Damascus. He said Syria is causing “great concern” to the United States by permitting suicide bombers to cross the border into Iraq, “where they kill both Iraqi and coalition partners,” and allowing the resupply of Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as a variety of other activities.Regarding Iran, Gates voiced confidence in recent U.N. Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Tehran unless it stops enriching uranium, which can be used in nuclear bombs. Israeli officials have endorsed the diplomatic pressure, but have not ruled out military force as a last resort.”The diplomatic track is preferable and should be allowed to run its course,” Peretz told reporters. “But it is still not possible to remove other options from our table.” Peretz spoke warmly of the Bush administration’s concern for Israel’s continued military superiority in the region. The issue was raised anew this month when The New York Times reported that Israeli protests had stalled a planned sale of advanced U.S. weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries.”We are studying the changes, checking all of the processes, and of course for any issue that arises we will set up working teams that will examine each and every question and all ramifications,” Peretz said.”I think that today, the [Israeli] Defense Ministry and the [U.S.] Defense Department find themselves in a very important place that involves both joint analysis and joint assessments, as well as understandings about the responses that we are capable of providing” to perceived threats, Peretz said.