U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle East amid the ongoing upheaval that has swept across the region this year.
He said Sunday while traveling to Israel for his first visit as defense chief that Israeli leaders must restart negotiations with the Palestinians and work to restore relations with Egypt and Turkey.
Panetta is scheduled to hold talks this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He will then travel to a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
Panetta said Sunday it is critical for Israel to find ways to communicate with other nations in the region in order to have stability, and that Israel risks eroding its own security if it does not reach out to its neighbors.
He also stressed that the Israelis and Palestinians need to set aside preconditions and return to long-stalled peace talks.
Israel has formally accepted an international plan for restarting negotiations, but the immediate resumption of talks appears unlikely as the two sides continue to differ over terms of the proposal.
Mr. Netanyahu Sunday welcomed “the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations without preconditions.” He said Israel has concerns about the plan that it will raise at the “appropriate time.” But he did not elaborate.
The Quartet of Middle East peace mediators issued a declaration last month calling for negotiations to resume “without delay or preconditions.”
Palestinians have accused Israel of violating the spirit of the Quartet’s proposal by approving a plan to build 1,100 housing units in the predominantly Jewish district of Gilo in annexed East Jerusalem. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as a future capital and they view any Israeli construction there as illegal settlement activity.
The Quartet statement does not explicitly mention a settlement freeze. But it calls on the two sides “to refrain from provocative actions” and cites their obligations under the 2003 “road map” – a U.S.-backed plan that calls for a complete halt to settlement activity. The Palestinians say the statement also accommodates their demand for Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries to serve as the basis for border talks.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the Quartet statement requires Israel to accept several positions before negotiations can begin, including a settlement freeze.
The United States expressed deep disappointment with the Israeli move while the European Union condemned it. Israel rejected the criticism, saying Gilo is an integral part of its undivided capital and will remain so in any future peace deal.
Israeli officials have expressed concern about some parts of the latest Quartet declaration, including its call for “substantial progress” on issues of “territory” and “security” within six months. The officials say that such matters should be discussed alongside other core disputes of the conflict, including the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.