Panetta Seeks to Avert Israel’s Regional Isolation in Visit

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
Leon Panetta, U.S. Defense Secretary. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on a Middle East mission to reverse what he called Israel’s increasing isolation, as peace talks remain stalled and tensions with Turkey and Egypt escalate.

“It is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated, and that’s what’s happening,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Tel Aviv, where he arrived yesterday. “For the security of that region, it’s really important that we do everything possible to try to help them re-establish relations with countries like Turkey and with Egypt.”

Ties between Israel and Egypt have frayed since a popular revolt ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February and produced calls to end the three-decade peace treaty between the two nations. Turkey downgraded relations with Israel after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to apologize for a commando raid last year that left nine dead on a Turkish vessel that was attempting to breach the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“Security is dependent on a strong military, but it is also dependent on strong diplomacy,” Panetta told reporters during a joint appearance with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv.

Panetta also publicly advised against unilateral military action by Israel to deal with what it and the U.S. suspect are clandestine Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Egypt Next

Panetta will next travel to Cairo, where he plans to meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the military council that took power from Mubarak, as well as Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Panetta then will travel to Brussels for a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers.

In Tel Aviv yesterday, Barak said that, while “there are many that would like to see Israel cornered into some kind of isolation,” he agreed that Israel should seek better relations with Turkey and Egypt and find a way to resume talks with the Palestinians.

“We have enough problems accumulated on our table,” said Barak, a former prime minister and chairman of the Labor Party who now heads the Independence Party, which holds five seats in the 120-seat parliament. Netanyahu’s Likud party, which has 27 seats, leads a six-party coalition government.

Quartet Proposal

The so-called Quartet of the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia issued a proposal Sept. 23 for new peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians after after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas asked the UN to approve a Palestinian application for full membership.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down a year ago after Netanyahu refused to renew a 10-month freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements in territory that Israel won from Jordan in the 1968 Six-Day War. Abbas has insisted that settlement construction stop before peace talks resume.

“My main message to both sides is you don’t lose anything by going into negotiations,” Panetta said.

Netanyahu yesterday said he accepted a Quartet proposal to restart peace talks. He has refused to halt settlement building and last week Israel approved the construction of 1,100 new homes in east Jerusalem.

Panetta, who also met yesterday with Netanyahu and Abbas, said the administration opposes a move in Congress to block aid to the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for Abbas’s UN recognition drive.

‘Wrong Time’

American aid for Palestinian health projects, infrastructure and security training has been “one of the most effective” methods for helping the Palestinian Authority, Panetta said.

“This would be exactly the wrong time to withdraw those necessary funds,” he said.

Panetta met Abbas at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday and “reiterated the Obama administration’s vision,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, who attended the session.

Abbas “praised President Obama’s commitment to the two-state solution” and said the Palestinians “are ready to go back to negotiations” once Netanyahu declares a settlement freeze and accepts the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, he said.

Panetta is only the second U.S. defense secretary to visit the Palestinian Authority headquarters and the first to meet there with Abbas. Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, visited Ramallah in March for talks with Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, whom the U.S. credits with improving the authority’s financial accountability.

Iran Issue

On Iran, Panetta signaled that the U.S. continues to discourage Israel from a potential military strike to stop the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. The U.S. said it believes Iran is pursuing an atomic weapon, while officials in Tehran say they are interested only in civilian nuclear energy.

Asked to comment on calls in Israel for a pre-emptive strike on Iran, Panetta said, “I think the most effective way to deal with Iran is not on a unilateral basis.”

Panetta said Iran would be welcome as a responsible member of the international community if its leaders decide to change its behavior.

“If they don’t, we will work together to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they do not represent a threat to this region,” Panetta said in his appearance with Barak.

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