Panetta describes Israel as ‘increasingly isolated’

Israel has become “increasingly isolated” in the Middle East because of its deteriorating relations with Egypt and Turkey, as well as the political tumult triggered by the Arab Spring, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Sunday.

Panetta spoke shortly after he departed Washington for a multi-day trip to the Middle East and Europe. His first scheduled stop is Israel, where he is expected to warn Israeli and Palestinian leaders that conditions for instability are ripe if they do not re-engage in peace talks soon.

Israel’s relations with Turkey and Egypt — formerly stalwart allies — have suffered badly since the outbreak of pro-democracy movements in the Arab world this year. At the same time, the Obama administration has struggled to persuade Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume negotiations, as both sides have hardened their positions.

On Sunday, Israel agreed to a proposal by international mediators to resume peace negotiations after the Palestinians reacted positively to the plan, although a dispute over Israeli settlement building did not appear any closer to resolution.

“It’s pretty clear that this dramatic time in the Middle East, where there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated, and that’s what’s happening,” Panetta told reporters on his plane while crossing the Atlantic.

In Israel, Panetta is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials. He also plans to stop in Cairo to visit Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s ruling military council.

“There are too many friction points as it is right now, with all of these changes taking place,” Panetta said. “The most important thing now would be for Israel, as well as these neighboring countries, to try to develop better relationships, so at the very least they can communicate with each other rather than taking those issues to the streets.”

Egyptian demonstrators forced their way into the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last month. When Egyptian security forces were slow to offer protection, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked Panetta to intervene. U.S. officials reacted quickly and helped avert a crisis, but tensions between Egypt and Israel have persisted.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to manage fallout from the Palestinian Authority’s bid to win recognition from the United Nations as an independent state. The United States opposes the unilateral move, saying that Palestinian statehood should come as a result of peace talks with Israel.

Panetta said he would try to prod both sides to accept the latest attempt to restart talks, an arrangement sponsored by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. The proposal calls for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace accord within a year.

If progress is not made soon, Obama administration officials fear that the street demonstrations in countries rocked by the Arab Spring could spread to the Palestinian territories, which have remained relatively tranquil.

Panetta, who become defense secretary in July after a year and a half as CIA director, is also scheduled to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels. NATO ministers are planning to review progress in the war in Afghanistan and to discuss how to wind down military operations in Libya.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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