Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Friday evening that Israelis and Palestinians would make serious headway in the peace process if only two parties would “get to the damn table."
"The problem is right now that we can’t get them to the damn table," Panetta told a crowd that included Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and Martin Indyk, the former assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs under Bill Clinton. "First and foremost" Panetta said, "get to the damn table."
His remarks were made at the 2011 Saban Forum, an annual gathering that brings together U.S. and Israeli officials and policymakers.
Panetta also touched on the threat that Iran’s nuclear program poses to the Middle East and America. He declared Tehran "a very grave threat to all of us,” adding that "no greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran" — though he was clear that U.S. military action against the regime remains a "last resort."
If the U.S. were to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, it would set the country’s program back just one to two years, he added.
Panetta also warned that Israel must take bold steps, along with the U.S., to prevent itself from growing ever more isolated across the globe.
The Jewish state, he said, "has a responsibility to pursue these shared goals — to build regional support for Israeli and United States security objectives. I believe security is dependent on a strong military, but it is also dependent on strong diplomacy."
Peace, Panetta added, "requires some difficult steps, but all Israelis should know that the United States will always stand behind their country, providing a secure safety net as it takes those necessary risks."
Discussing the Arab Spring and democratic revolutions across the Middle East, Panetta expressed a cautious optimism. He said that diplomacy and outreach are the best methods to ensure that Israel’s safety:
While we share Israel’s legitimate concerns about instability in the Sinai Peninsula, and the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the best way to address these concerns is through increasing communication and cooperation with Egyptian authorities, not by stepping away from them. I understand the view that this is not the time to pursue peace, and that the Arab awakening further imperils the dream of a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic Israel – but I disagree. I believe Israel will ultimately be safer when other Middle Eastern states adopt governments that respond to their people, promote equal rights, promote free and fair elections, uphold their international commitments, and join the community of free and democratic nations. I believe it is the only real long-term path to security and prosperity.
Panetta also reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to preserving Israel’s security — just as the president himself has made clear in recent days.
"I would like to underscore one thing that has stayed constant over the past three years of the Obama administration – the determination of the United States to safeguard Israel’s security," Panetta said. "And that commitment will not change."