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Panetta to Israel: 'Get to the Damn Table' for Peace Talks

U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta (file photo)

U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta (file photo)

The top U.S. defense official is warning Israel it cannot afford to further isolate itself from Arab neighbors in the Middle East.

During a forum in Washington late Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Israel needs to start by getting back "to the damn table" and negotiating peace with the Palestinians. He also called on Israel to mend its fraying relationships with traditional partners like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan.

Some Israeli leaders have viewed the Arab Spring, and uprisings like the one that toppled long-time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as a threat to regional stability as well as to Israel's security. But Panetta urged Israeli officials to reject that way of thinking.

Panetta said Israel has no choice but to take some risks to ensure a safer future, starting with resuming peace talks with the Palestinians, a process that Panetta said has "effectively been put on hold."

The U.S. defense secretary said the U.S. continues to be committed to safeguarding Israel's security but that "Israel too, has a responsibility" to build regional support through "strong diplomacy."

Panetta also addressed ongoing concerns about Iran's nuclear program, but said that while the U.S. has not ruled out using military force, such a strike was an option of last resort. He said a possible military strike might only delay Iran's nuclear program by two years, while potentially rattling the U.S. and European economies.

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel in 1949, but relations worsened last year when Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla challenging a naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists.

Israeli-Egyptian relations soured in August when Israeli troops killed five Egyptian policemen while pursuing Palestinian gunmen who crossed into Israel from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and killed eight Israelis.

Israel also fears that if radical Islamist political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood make a strong showing in the latest elections, Egypt will annul the two countries' peace agreement.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.