Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta prodded Israel on Friday to do more to reverse its deepening isolation in the Middle East, and suggested that Israeli leaders bear significant blame for a stalled peace process that he said “has been effectively put on hold.”
Panetta’s admonishment came in a speech in which he also pledged an “unshakable” commitment to the security of the Jewish state and reiterated a promise to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons — including by military force, if needed. He said the Defense Department had contingency plans for a “wide range of military options, should they become necessary.”
“When it comes to the threat posed by Iran, the president has made clear that we have not taken any options off the table,” Panetta said.
Panetta’s remarks on Israel were the latest in a series of statements by Obama administration officials chiding Israeli leaders over the nearly moribund state of the peace process. Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates was quoted in September as complaining about Israeli inaction on peace talks despite substantial U.S. assistance on weapon systems and intelligence.
In his speech at a meeting of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Panetta said Israel could count on “three enduring pillars of U.S. policy” to preserve its safety and prosperity during a period of extraordinary turmoil in the Middle East. The pillars included the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, a broader commitment to stability in the region, and a determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he said.
“These are not merely rhetorical reassurances,” Panetta said. “These are firm principles that are backed up by tangible action, the commitment of resources and demonstrable resolve.”
But he also said Israel must do more to ensure its own security by seeking to repair strained relations with Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, and by seizing the opportunity to negotiate a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians.
“Unfortunately, over the past year, we’ve seen Israel’s isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow, and the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace has effectively been put on hold,” Panetta said.
Panetta acknowledged that Israel is not solely responsible for its isolation, but he said it needed to make a greater effort to mend fences, particularly with Turkey. “If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are,” he said.