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Arab Spring increases pressure on Israel to negotiate, Panetta says

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — In the face of the regime changes brought by the Arab Spring, negotiating with the Palestinians is all the more important for an “increasingly isolated” Israel, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday en route to the Middle East.

Citing the fall in February of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and the instability of the region as leaders throughout cling to power, Panetta said that Israel no longer could depend on its military superiority for its security. Rather it must work to build relations with the Arab world’s new leadership. That begins by restarting the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he said.

“It is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated, and that’s’ what’s happening,” Panetta told reporters aboard a military airplane. He added later: “The question you have to ask is: Is it enough to main a military edge if you are isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena?”

The secretary’s assessment of Israeli security since the Arab Spring reflected what many believed has indeed happened. But that it came from him suggested the United States in increasingly worried about the security of its closest Middle East ally amid unpredictable events in the region, and Israel stands to lose the most if it doesn’t negotiate.

Panetta is traveling to Israel and then Egypt, where he will tackle Egyptian-Israeli relations, which have suffered since the fall of the Mubarak regime.

It is unclear what, if anything, the United States can do to break the negotiation logjam between Israel and the Palestinians. Panetta said he is traveling to the region to hear from the Arabs and the Israelis what they need from the United States and whether it can help “bridge those gaps.” He did not offer any specifics.

“My main message to both sides is, you don’t lose anything _ you don’t lose anything _ by going into negotiations and trying to pursue a peace process that everyone in the world is hopeful can begin,” Panetta said.

Earlier Sunday, the Israelis agreed to participate in talks led by the international mediators known as the Quartet _ the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations _ which is aiming for a peace agreement by the end of 2012.

Earlier in the week, Israel said it would build 1,100 new homes in Gilo, on annexed land near Jerusalem, drawing the ire of Palestinians and the international community. That Israel agreed to work with the Quartet was the first tangible sign of progress.

"Israel welcomes the Quartet call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions," the statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said. "Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to do the same and to enter into direct negotiations without delay."

In Egypt, Panetta will confront a government limited by its own domestic issues. While the United States maintains strong relations in Egypt, the revolt there has put renewed pressure on the transitional government to break ties with Israel. Indeed, protesters ransacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, and Egyptian authorities had to intervene to protect the facility from further damage.

Panetta, making his first trip to the region since becoming defense secretary three months ago, arrives at a time when Egyptian-Israeli relations are at their nadir since the 1979 peace agreement. At the same time, the Palestinians have said they will seek to be recognized as a state by the United Nations, despite a U.S. vow to veto such a measure. Panetta urged the Palestinians to negotiate instead.

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