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Leon Panetta in Israel: Will his urgent messages bring action?

Amid US concerns over Israel's growing isolation from its Mideast neighbors, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has an urgent message for the country's leaders: Re-engage in the peace process.

By Staff writer / October 3, 2011

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta answers questions aboard an Air Force plane over the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday. Panetta is traveling to the Middle East to meet with leaders on various issues related to the region.

Win McNamee/AP

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Washington

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, traveling at a time of what some analysts say are profound and lasting changes in the US-Israel relationship, is carrying a couple of high-priority messages to America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

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On his first visit to Israel as Pentagon chief, Secretary Panetta’s first order of business appeared to be to air US concerns about Israel’s growing isolation from its neighbors – some of whom are also critical partners of the US.

In meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Secretary Panetta is sharing his concern that Israel is endangering its own security with the recent deterioration in its relations with neighbors like Egypt and Turkey.

Panetta is carrying another message from the White House to his Israeli interlocutors: Find a way to resume peace talks with the Palestinians.

“Panetta is carrying water for the White House with this message that the Israelis need to re-engage in the peace process,” says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

The US desire to see peace talks under way once again has more to do with US relations with the region than with any strong prospects for the Israelis and Palestinians to actually make progress towards a peace accord, Mr. Phillips says.

“Every White House wants something going because it’s easier for the US to operate in the Arab and Muslim worlds when there’s a peace process,” he says. “This administration is no different in wanting the Israelis and Palestinians to get up on the two-seat bicycle, even if everybody knows there’s no chance of a comprehensive settlement any time soon.”

Panetta is also scheduled to meet in the West Bank with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minster Salam Fayyad.

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