U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Israel on Thursday in the wake of a deadly bombing that could complicate his planned efforts to press Israeli and Palestinian leaders to restart peace talks.
A bomb exploded near a bus stop in a Jewish district of Jerusalem on Wednesday, killing a woman and injuring at least 30 people, in an attack police blamed on Palestinian militants.
Gates, who called the bombing "a horrific terrorist attack", was expected to use his visit to discuss regional security concerns including Iran, but also to urge the resumption of peace talks stalled since September 2010.
The defense secretary was due to meet Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres on Thursday. On Friday, he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
A senior U.S. defense official, briefing reporters ahead of the trip and the bombing, said Washington believed Israel needed to get ahead of a wave of unrest sweeping the region by advancing peace efforts.
Although uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya were focusing for now on domestic political and economic grievances, that could change, the official suggested.
"(Gates) will make the general argument that ... the Israelis have a very deep strategic interest in getting out in front of the wave of populism that's sweeping the region," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Showing real progress on the peace track with the Palestinians would put them in a much better position for where the region's likely to be in six months or a year from now."
DEBATE IN ISRAEL
The official said the best way to get ahead of the unrest was "for both sides, Palestinians and the Israelis, to take the steps necessary to restart direct talks".
Still, the official acknowledged debate within Israel about how to proceed given the turbulence in the region.
"There's some who ... are kind of in a little bit of a defense crouch and a risk adverse posture as it related to Middle East peace," the official said. "I think our administration sees things a little differently."
The bombing along with lethal strikes in Gaza confirmed fears that violence between Israelis and Palestinians is on the rise again after nearly two years of relative calm.
The official played down any concrete proposals that Gates might make. "He's the Secretary of Defense, not the Secretary of State. So ... he's not going with a roadmap," the official said.
Instead Gates would make a similar argument to Israel that he's been making to Arab allies as he travels throughout the region "that they need to get out in front of this push for political change".
Gates is fresh from a visit to Egypt, where longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was toppled in an uprising last month. He was in Bahrain less than two weeks ago, urging reform there.
On Wednesday in Cairo, Gates expressed amazement at the speed with which the revolts have spread "regardless of the diversity of the governments involved".