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.

Win McNamee/AP
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.

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.

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.

Panetta’s visit to Israel, part of a swing through the Middle East before he attends a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, comes just six months after former Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a similar trip. Mr. Gates was the first US defense secretary to visit Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.

But Gates was also reported (by Bloomberg’s Jeff Goldberg) to have told a summer national security session at the White House shortly before he stepped down that Israel is an “ungrateful ally” that has given the US little or nothing – particularly concerning the peace process – in return for America’s rock solid security guarantees.

Gates also reportedly said that Mr. Netanyahu was endangering Israel’s security by failing to address his country’s deteriorating regional relationships.

In that sense Panetta’s warnings of Israel’s growing “isolation” may have a worrisome echo for the Israeli officials he meets.

Some analysts, like Heritage’s Phillips, are of the view that US-Israel military-to-military relations are stronger than ever, and that any flat notes should be heard as reflecting diplomatic differences between the two countries.

Noting that Panetta publicly made his “isolation” comment before arriving in Israel, Phillips says it could be the US defense secretary wanted to “put that particular US concern out there” before his military meetings. “Maybe that’s a message that’s really better for the politicians,” he says.

But others say there is no getting around the fact that the US-Israel strategic partnership is changing – and that recent turbulence in the relationship reflects not only a changing region but – to some degree and on some issues – diverging national interests.

In a new study analyzing the US-Israel partnership entitled “Crossroads,” Haim Malka of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that “rising tensions in the bilateral relationship” reflect one key reality: “The US and Israel have changed and continue to change, but the two countries’ relationship has not kept pace.”

For one thing, the US must treat Israel less as a dependent, Mr. Malka says. And perhaps with something of an echo of Robert Gates, Malka concludes that the US and Israel must develop a relationship “that contains clearer commitments of what each side will do for the other – with an implicit understanding that there are limits to those commitments.”

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