Frustrated Panetta chides Israel on talks

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta late Friday blamed Israel for stalled Middle East peace negotiations and urged the Jewish state to repair relations with its Arab neighbors.

Panetta told an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., that the U.S. in particular wants Israel to engage Turkey, Egypt and Jordan and not to use the Arab awakening as an excuse to disengage.

Asked what Israel needs to do with respect to the Palestinians, Panetta urged a resumption of negotiations.

“Just get to the damn table...The problem right now is we can't get them to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences you know, we all know what the pieces are here for a potential agreement,” he said.

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President Obama is known to have a difficult relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have been trying to paint the GOP as more friendly toward Israel than the Democrats.

Panetta prefaced his remarks by saying the U.S. has an “unshakable commitment” to Israel's security and views preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon as a top priority.

“But in every strong relationship built on trust, built on friendship, built on mutual security, it demands that both sides work towards the same common goals. And Israel, too, has responsibility to pursue our shared goals to build regional support for Israel and the United States' security objectives,” he said.

He said that “unfortunately, over the past year we have seen Israel's isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow, and the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace has effectively been put on hold.”

He said that some of the responsibility for the trend belongs to the Arab states, but said Israel needs now to reach out to mend fences. If it is rebuked, then the Arab states will take the heat, he said.

“If gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are.That is exactly why Israel should pursue them,” he said.

“I recognize that there is a view that this is not the time to pursue peace and that the Arab awakening further imperils the dream of a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. But I disagree with that view. I believe Israel will ultimately be safer when other Middle Eastern states adopt governments that respond to their people, promote equal rights, promote free and fair elections, uphold their international commitments, and join the community of free and democratic nations,” he said.

Panetta said that it is too soon to conclude that the victory of Islamist parties in Egypt's parliamentary elections will bode badly for the region. He also said that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's time in power is coming to an end.

“I can't tell you when, but clearly it's a matter of time before Assad is taken off of his position of leadership in Syria,” he said.