Israeli, US defense chiefs hold talks at Pentagon

Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak held talks Tuesday with Pentagon chief Leon Panetta that were expected to focus on the conflict in Syria and on Iran's nuclear program, US officials said.

The meeting comes shortly after an Israeli air raid against a Syrian regime target, which renewed debate in Washington over arming Syria's rebels and fresh concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

It was the second time this year that the two defense chiefs, who are both due to step down soon, held talks in Washington.

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James "Sandy" Winnefeld, also took part in the talks on Tuesday, officials said.

During his visit, Barak was to meet senior intelligence and administration officials as well.

But defense officials declined to provide any details of the discussions.

A day before Barak's visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran was now closer to crossing the "red line" after which it could build a nuclear weapon.

The Pentagon meeting also followed an admission from Panetta this week that he and other top officials had favored providing weapons to Syria's opposition forces, but were overruled in a White House debate.

The administration announced last week that President Barack Obama will make his first-ever visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this spring.

Yitzhak Molcho, the personal envoy of Netanyahu, is also expected in the US capital this week to prepare for Obama's visit, as well as Israel's National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, Israeli media said.

Barak, after a decades-long career in top posts, has announced plans to retire from politics following the country's January elections.

And Panetta plans to step down as US defense secretary as soon as the Senate confirms Obama's pick to succeed him, former senator Chuck Hagel.

The Vietnam veteran has come under intense criticism from Republican lawmakers, who accuse him of failing to back Israel and of taking naive positions on Iran.