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Leon Panetta
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'Israel must mend regional relations'
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laments 'growing Israeli isolation'; says Israel, PA must get back to 'damn peace table'

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Israel and the Palestinian Authority to get back to the "damn" negotiating table. He also urged Israel to take steps to address what he described as the Jewish state's growing isolation in the Middle East.

 

Panetta, addressing a forum at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, also warned Israel against viewing the Arab uprisings rattling the Middle East as an excuse to enter a defensive crouch.

 

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"I understand the view that this is not the time to pursue peace, and that the Arab awakening further imperils the dream of a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. But I disagree with that view," Panetta said.

  

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Panetta at Saban Center

 

He said Israel needed to take risks, including by breathing new life into moribund peace talks with Palestinians. When asked by a moderator what steps Israel needed to take to pursue peace, Panetta said: "Just get to the damn table."

 

"The problem right now is we can't get them to the damn table, to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences," Panetta said.

 

'Israel's isolation concerning'

Panetta said that the United States would safeguard Israel's security, ensure regional stability and prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon adding that "Israel, too, has a responsibility to pursue these shared goals – to build regional support for Israeli and United States' security objectives.

 

"I believe security is dependent on a strong military but it is also dependent on strong diplomacy. And unfortunately, over the past year, we've seen Israel's isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow."

 

Panetta suggested that Israel reach out and mend fences with countries like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan which "share an interest in regional stability."

 

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, in 1949, but relations worsened last year when Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla challenging the naval blockade of Gaza Strip.

 

"It is in Israel's interest, Turkey's interest, and US interest for Israel to reconcile with Turkey, and both Turkey and Israel need to do more to put their relationship back on track," Panetta said.

 

Israel is closely watching developments in Egypt, whose new rulers may be more susceptible to widespread anti-Israeli sentiment than former President Hosni Mubarak.

 

Panetta said the best course for the United States and the international community was to continue to put pressure on Egypt to follow through with transition to democracy and ensure any future government stands by its peace treaty with Israel.

 

Panetta said that while Israel is not solely responsible for its isolation, it could more actively attempt to reverse the trend: "For example, Israel can reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability – countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan," he said.

 

"This is not impossible. If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are. And that is exactly why Israel should pursue them."

 

Panetta further urged Israel to "lean forward" to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Peace talks have been moribund for more than a year.

 

"Rather than undermining the Palestinian Authority, it is in Israel's interests to strengthen it by ... continuing to transfer Palestinian tax revenues and pursuing other avenues of cooperation," he said.

 

Reuters and AP contributed to this report

 

 

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