Al Jazeera – 2011-12-03 00:44:25
WASHINGTON (December 3, 2011) — United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has urged Israel to go back to the negotiating table with Palestinians and to address what he described as the country’s growing isolation in the Middle East.
In remarks at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Friday, Panetta said: “The problem right now is we can’t get them [Israel’s leaders] to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences.
“We understand the concerns of Israel, we understand the concerns of the Palestinians. If they sit at a table and work through those concerns and the United States can be of assistance in that process, then I think you have the beginning of what could be a process that could lead to a peace agreement. But if they aren’t there, if they aren’t at the table, this will never happen. So first and foremost get to the damn table.”
He urged Israel to “lean forward” to achieve peace with the Palestinians. 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 co-operation,” he said.
Panetta also urged Israel to “reach out and mend fences” with Turkey, Egypt and others in the Middle East, saying he is troubled by Israel’s growing isolation in the region. While Israel is not solely responsible for its isolation, Panetta said, 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, who made his first visit to Israel as Pentagon chief in October, said it is in the interests of Israel as well as Turkey, a NATO ally of the US, to reconcile. The defence secretary said he would take that message to Ankara when he visits there in two weeks. He urged the Israelis to address their concerns about Egypt’s political revolution through increased communication and co-operation with Egyptian authorities, “not by stepping away from them”.
Commenting on Iran, Panetta underscored US President Barack Obama’s determination to stop the country from acquiring nuclear weapons. “No greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said, adding that Obama has not ruled out using military force to stop Iran from going nuclear.
However, Panetta cautioned against an Israeli or US military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He said such an attack would “at best” delay Iran’s nuclear programme by one or two years.
Among the unintended consequences, he said, would be an increase in regional support for Iran and the likelihood of Iranian retaliation against US forces and bases in the Middle East. It also would have harmful economic consequences and could lead to military escalation, he said. “We have to be careful about the unintended consequences” of an Israeli or US attack, he said.
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