Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that Israel must improve its relations with neighboring countries, saying the country is becoming increasingly isolated in the region.
Panetta made the comments ahead of his arrival Monday in Israel, where he will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to jump start peace talks.
“I don’t think there is any question in talking with leaders from Israel that they recognize that they’ve becoming increasingly isolated in that part of the world, and that’s not … a good situation,” Panetta told reporters while en route late Sunday to Israel.
“I think they recognize that it’s important to do whatever they can to try to improve those relations.”
Tensions in the region have been running high in recent weeks over the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood before the United Nations, and Israel’s plans to build 1,100 new homes in disputed territory in south Jerusalem.
“The important thing there is to again reaffirm our strong security relationship with Israel, to make clear that we will protect their qualitative military edge,” Panetta said.
“As they take risks for peace, we will be able to provide the security that they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room hopefully to negotiate.”
Panetta said he plans to offer U.S. help to Israel to improve its deteriorating relationships with some of its neighbors, particularly Turkey and Egypt.
“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. And that’s what’s happening,” Panetta said.
“And I think for the security of that region, it’s very important that we do everything possible to try to help them re-establish relations with countries like Turkey and with Egypt.”
Turkey and Israel have been at odds following the deaths of nine Turkish activists during an Israeli commando raid last year on the SS Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla of ships that was headed to blockaded Gaza.
Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expelled Israel’s ambassador over that nation’s refusal to apologize for the incident.
Public opposition in Egypt, meanwhile, against its peace treaty with Israel appears to be growing. Protesters last month attacked Israel’s embassy.
Panetta will follow up his trip to Israel with a stop in Egypt, where he said he will encourage leaders to proceed with a promised election process following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
The defense secretary said there was little question Israel has maintained its military superiority in the region.
“But the question you have to ask is, is it enough to maintain a military edge if you are isolating yourself diplomatically?,” Panetta said.
“Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to protect your military strength.”
Panetta’s visit to the region follows an Israeli announcement Sunday that it supports a call by the Middle East Quartet — made up of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia —
for direct talks with Palestinians to resume within a month.
In a statement, the Israeli prime minister’s office said Israel “welcomes the quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions.”
“While Israel has some concerns, it will raise them at the appropriate time,” the statement added. “Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to do the same and to enter into direct negotiations without delay.”
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said Palestinians would not return to negotiations until Israel halts all settlement construction and accepts 1967 border lines as a basis for the return to talks.
Panetta said he will stress to both Palestinians and Israelis that rather than set conditions for negotiating, they look for other approaches to resolve the issues.
“So my main message is, to both sides, you don’t lose anything by going into negotiations and trying to pursue a peace process everyone in the world is hopeful can begin,” he said.
Also on the agenda with Israeli leadership is Iran. Panetta said the most effective way to deal with Iran “is not on a unilateral basis.”
Later, Panetta will head to Brussels, Belgium, for a meeting of NATO defense ministers. The coalition has been involved in a number of ongoing military campaigns, including over Libya and in Afghanistan.