(JTA) — U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called on Israelis and Palestinians to “get to the damn table” and resume peace negotiations.
“The problem right now is we can’t get them to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences — you know, we all know what the pieces are here for a potential agreement," Panetta said last Friday at the 2011 Saban Forum, an annual gathering that brings together U.S. and Israeli officials and policymakers. "We’ve talked it out, worked through, we understand the concerns, we understand the concerns of Israel, understand the concerns of the Palestinians.
"If they sit at a table and work through those concerns, and the United States can be of assistance in that process, then I think you have the beginning of what could be a process that would lead to a peace agreement.”
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday night in response that the Palestinian leadership is to blame for the lack of negotiations, saying the Palestinians are playing "diplomatic games."
Panetta said that Israel can count on "three enduring pillars" in U.S. policy in the region: "First, our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. Second, our broader commitment to regional stability. And third, our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
The U.S. defense chief reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to preserving Israel’s security. 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."