WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called on Israel on Friday to take diplomatic steps to address what he described as its growing isolation in the Middle East.
Panetta, in prepared remarks that he was due to deliver in Washington on Friday evening, stressed U.S. efforts to bolster regional stability and to safeguard Israel’s security.
“Israel, too, has a responsibility to pursue these shared goals — to build regional support for Israeli and United States security objectives,” Panetta said, according to portions of the speech released to reporters before delivery.
“I believe security is dependent on a strong military but it is also dependent on strong diplomacy. And unfortunately, over the past year, we’ve seen Israel’s isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow.”
Panetta lamented the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, which he said had “effectively been put on hold.”
Panetta’s comments echoed remarks he made on a visit to Israel in October, his first since taking over as defense secretary in September.
Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, in 1949, but relations worsened last year when Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla challenging a naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, killing nine Turks in ensuing clashes.
Israel is also closely watching developments in Egypt, where the country’s new rulers may be more susceptible to widespread anti-Israeli sentiment than it was under ousted president, Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptians voted on Friday in the opening round of the country’s first free lection in six decades. The Muslim Brotherhood’s party and its ultra-conservative Salafi rivals looked set to top the polls.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Christopher Wilson