Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on his first trip to Israel since becoming Pentagon chief, warned in blunt comments Monday that Israel faces growing diplomatic isolation. Panetta also echoed the recent push among lead U.S. diplomats to get the Israelis and Palestinians back into peace negotiations.
"There's not much question in my mind that they (the Israelis) maintain that (military) edge," Panetta told journalists flying with him to Israel Monday, according to an Associated Press report. "But the question you have to ask: Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you're isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength."
"It's pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated," Panetta, the former CIA director and longtime California lawmaker, said. "And that's what's happening."
"These difficult issues that need to be resolved are best resolved at the negotiating table by all of them participating and working on what are obviously difficult issues that can only be resolved through negotiations," Panetta also said, according to American Forces Press Service.
Meanwhile, the newly installed Defense secretary also urged caution and multilateral coordination in confronting the nuclear threat in Iran. "The most effective way to deal with Iran is not on a unilateral basis, [but] to unify an effort to confront Iran directly that they have to change their ways," he said.
Panetta meets separately with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday. He will also meet with Palestinian leaders, before traveling to Egypt for meetings with the Egyptian military command and interim prime minister. He then heads to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers, which will likely address Libya and Afghanistan.
Panetta's candid appraisal comes as the State Department welcomed a key announcement from the Israeli government on the peace negotiations front. Israeli officials said over the weekend that they would accept the basic format of negotiations put forward by the so-called Middle East Quartet, comprised of the United States, Russia, United Nations and European Union. However, it's still not clear whether the Palestinians would agree to the talks--especially ion the wake of a new Israeli announcement last week that it had approved construction of 1,100 more apartments in the disputed south Jerusalem area of Gilo, on land seized in the 1967 war.
"We welcome the Israeli government's announcement today expressing readiness to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, as called for by the Quartet," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement to journalists Sunday. "The Palestinians expressed support for the Quartet approach on September 29."
"The U.S. once again calls on both parties to resume negotiations without preconditions, on the timetable proposed by the Quartet, as the best means to advance their interests, resolve their differences, and fulfill the President's two-state vision," Nuland said.