Panetta arrives in Israel for meetings with PM, Barak

US defense secretary acknowledges "dramatic" changes in region, says US security commitments should enable Israel to take "risks for peace."

Panetta arrives in Israel 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of US Embassy Tel Aviv)
Panetta arrives in Israel 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of US Embassy Tel Aviv)
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Israel Monday morning, where he was set to hold meetings with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to discuss bilateral defense relations as well as major security issues.
Aboard a military aircraft Sunday, the defense secretary warned that Israel was becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle Eastbut said US security commitments should enable it to take "risks for peace."
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Panetta's trip was his first to Israel since becoming Pentagon chief. He said he would reaffirm US security commitments to Israel and try to help improve increasingly chilly relations with Turkey and Egypt.
"It's pretty clear, 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 is what has happened," Panetta told reporters on his plane.
"The timing (of Panetta's visit) couldn't be more apt given the events unfolding in the region and broad range of important issues on the agenda with the Israelis and the Egyptians," a US senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The important thing 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 was confident Israel had maintained its military superiority in the region "but the question you have to ask is - is it enough to maintain an military edge if you are isolating yourself diplomatically?"
"Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength," he said.
Iran and its nuclear program also will be on the agenda. Panetta said with much of the world opposed to Iran developing its nuclear capabilities, it would be best to work together to try to curb Tehran's ambitions rather than take unilateral action.
In a session officials said was added to the itinerary "relatively recently," the US defense secretary will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to re-engage the Palestinians just days after opposing their bid for statehood at the United Nations.
Panetta said he would stress to both sides that it was important to begin negotiations on a settlement rather than setting conditions for talks or seeking other approaches to resolve the issue.
"The most important thing they can do is go to the negotiating table," he said. "You are not going to achieve Middle East peace by trying to slam-dunk it at the UN The only way you're going to achieve it is by negotiations."