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Talks with Palestinians vital for Israel, defense chief says

US urges bold action to reduce tension in region

By Lolita C. Baldor
Associated Press / October 4, 2011

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TEL AVIV - Israel must find a way to resume negotiations with the Palestinians and has a responsibility to try to ease tensions with its neighbors in the region, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday amid prodding from the United States to return to peace talks.

Standing next to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Barak pushed back a bit on the Pentagon chief’s warning that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated in the region, threatening its security. And he offered no new thoughts on the thorny issues that have stymied the peace talks, including the proposed timetable and the contested settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Making his first trip to Israel as defense secretary, Panetta has pressed the Obama administration’s view that the two sides must restart the long-stalled peace talks. And during a news conference with Barak, Panetta said it is time for bold action by both sides to move toward a negotiated two-state solution.

The visit comes amid new international pressure to reach a peace deal by the end of next year, fueled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s move two weeks ago asking the United Nations Security Council to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip. Those areas were captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

Mideast negotiators - known as the Quartet - are urging the Israelis and Palestinians to produce comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months. The Quartet - the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia - is also urging both sides to avoid provocative actions.

The administration opposes Abbas’s UN bid, and Panetta’s visit was clearly part of a broad campaign to avoid such a vote, and instead nudge the two sides back to the table.

On Sunday, Panetta issued his warning that Israel risks weakening its own security if it does not reach out to its neighbors, such as Turkey and Egypt, where relations are eroding.

“It’s pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated,’’ he said. “And that’s what’s happening.’’

Barak offered only general agreement but made no commitments that Israel would be more receptive to discussions about the settlements. Israel has continued to build settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where some 500,000 Jewish settlers now live. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

But, he said, “I fully agree that we have to look for any reasonable and proper way to ease tensions with Turkey, with Egypt, to find a way to resume negotiations in a sincere and effective manner with the Palestinians.’’

But he also criticized Abbas’s move at the UN, saying the “events of last week in New York clearly prove that there are limits to the Palestinians’ capacity to navigate the world.’’

And while he agreed Israel needs to reach out to its neighbors, he said that it is clear there are others in the world “who would like to see Israel cornered into some kind of isolation.’’

Panetta met with Barak in Tel Aviv on the first leg of a Middle East trip and then traveled to the West Bank for a meeting with Abbas.

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