TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — The continuing turmoil in the Middle East makes it crucial that Israel finds ways to communicate with other nations in the region if it's ever going to enjoy peace and stability, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in a blunt assessment.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday as he traveled to the Mideast and Europe, Panetta said the Jewish homeland is becoming increasingly isolated in the region. He said Israeli leaders need to restart negotiations with the Palestinians and work to restore relations with Egypt and Turkey.
"There's not much question in my mind that they maintain that (military) edge," Panetta said. "But the question you have to ask: Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you're isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength."
Panetta is scheduled to meet this week with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and then travel to a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. He will also go to Egypt, where he will meet with that nation's new leaders.
His visit comes as Mideast negotiators push for a peace deal by the end of next year, amping up pressure for the resumption of long-stalled talks.
The Pentagon chief said Israel risks eroding its own security if it does not reach out to its neighbors.
"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," he said.
Panetta said the most important thing now is for Israel and its neighbors "to try to develop better relationships so in the very least they can communicate with each other rather than taking these issues to the streets."
His visit comes at a particularly critical and fragile time.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has asked the U.N. Security Council to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The United States opposed the U.N. bid, saying there is no substitute for direct peace negotiations. But with Israel continuing to build settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Abbas says there is no point in talking.
Some 500,000 Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
The United States, Britain, France and other council members are likely to try to hold up consideration of the application while they press for a resumption of long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Panetta is scheduled to meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
His visit to Israel comes six months after his predecessor, Robert Gates, traveled to the region to meet with Israeli leaders and make the first journey to the West Bank to talk with Fayyad