WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called on Israel on Friday to "reach out and mend fences" with Turkey, Egypt and other security partners in the Middle East, saying he is troubled by the Jewish state's growing isolation in the volatile region.
He also urged Israeli leaders to do more to restart peace talks with the Palestinians and underscored President Barack Obama's determination to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He called Iran "a very grave threat to all of us" and said any Iranian disruption of the free flow of commerce through the Persian Gulf is a "redline" for the U.S.
In a speech at a Brookings Institution forum, Panetta said that while Israel is not solely responsible for its isolation, it could more actively attempt to reverse the trend.
"For example, Israel can reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability — countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan," he said. "This is not impossible. If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are. And that is exactly why Israel should pursue them."
Panetta, who made his first visit to Israel as Pentagon chief in October, said it is in the interests of Israel as well as Turkey, which is a NATO ally of the United States, to reconcile. He said he will take that message to Ankara when he visits there in two weeks.
He urged Israel to address its concerns about Egypt's political revolution through increased communication and cooperation with Egyptian authorities, "not by stepping away from them."
Addressing an issue that is in the primary domain of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Panetta urged Israel to "lean forward" to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Peace talks have been moribund for more than a year.
Panetta spoke starkly of the challenge of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"No greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran," he said, adding that Obama has not ruled out using military force to stop Iran from going nuclear.