MIDDLE EAST: U.S. defense secretary encourages peace talks
REPORTING FROM A U.S. AIR FORCE JET -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Sunday urged the Palestinian Authority to abandon a push for recognition as a sovereign state at the United Nations and accept an international proposal to resume long-stalled peace talks with Israel.
“If they can engage in negotiations, for their sake I think that’s the most effective way to try to resolve the issues,” Panetta told reporters aboard a U.S. Air Force jet. “You are not going to achieve Middle East peace by trying to slam dunk it in the U.N.”
Panetta was on his way to the Middle East for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials as part of an Obama administration push for the resumption of peace talks.
The U.S is hoping to win their backing for an international plan that calls for reaching a Middle East peace deal in a year and asks both sides to offer proposals on territory and security within three months.
President Obama called last month for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon a quest for the United Nations to recognize a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The move has put the U.S. in a diplomatic bind and could eventually force Washington to veto the Palestinian bid in the U.N. Security Council.
Israel said Sunday in a statement that it “welcomed” the plan, though it mentioned unspecified “concerns." Palestinian officials have refused to back new talks until Israel agrees to freeze building of
new housing in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem that they claim should be part of a Palestinian state.
Panetta said his main message to both sides was “you don’t lose anything by going into negotiations and trying to pursue a peace process that everyone in the world is hopeful can begin.”
He warned that Israel was "increasingly isolated” in the Middle East as protests and upheaval have swept across the region. He urged Israel to reach out to Egypt and Turkey, two longtime allies whose relations with Israel have reached low points.
“It’s pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many dramatic changes, it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated, and that’s what’s
happening,” Panetta said.
Panetta, on his second overseas trip since taking office in July, will also stop in Egypt and Brussels for talks at NATO headquarters on Libya and Afghanistan. It is the second trip to Israel this year by a
U.S. defense secretary. Former Secretary Robert M. Gates visited in March.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, right, answers questions aboard an Air Force jet heading to the Middle East. Credit: Pool photo.