US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday that Israel must work to end its increasing "isolation" in the region by repairing diplomatic ties with Egypt and Turkey and renewing peace efforts with the Palestinians.
"Unfortunately, over the past year, we've 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," Panetta said.
But he added in a speech that Israel was not entirely to blame for its difficult position and referred to an "international campaign" designed to isolate the country.
Panetta said he understood Israel's anxieties over turmoil in the Middle East but said the Arab spring offered an opportunity for the country to forge a more secure place in the region.
It was crucial for Israel to reach out and "mend fences" with countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan that he said share an interest in regional stability, he said.
Israel needed "to lean forward on efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians," Panetta said in an event organized by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
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After his speech, Panetta took questions from the audience and was asked what concrete steps Israel needed to take to promote peace with the Palestinians.
Panetta employed his characteristic colorful language to call on Israel to return to the negotiating table.
"Just get to the damn table," he said. "The problem right now is we can't get them to the damn table."
In his speech, he said the United States remained committed to Israel's security and vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, saying the option of possible military action had not been ruled out by President Barack Obama.
But he argued for the administration's emphasis on diplomacy and sanctions rather than military intervention to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, calling armed action "a last resort."
He repeated his view that a strike against Iran would only delay its nuclear project by one to two years and would run the risk of "unintended consequences" for the region.
The Pentagon chief also pledged Washington would ensure Israel continues to enjoy a clear military edge by providing the Jewish state with sophisticated missile defenses and new stealthy F-35 fighter jets.