- U.S. defense secretary vows to help Israel's relations with neighbors
- He says he'll reaffirm the U.S. military relationship with Israel and Egypt
- He says budgetary constraints make NATO cooperation more imperative
- He'll meet with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders before a NATO meeting
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Sunday en route to the Middle East that he plans to offer American assistance so that Israel can "improve relations with ... neighboring countries," some of which have been caught up in the Arab Spring.
Besides Israel, Panetta's trip -- his first to the region since being appointed defense secretary -- will take him to Egypt as well as Belgium.
He said that, at his first stop, he plans to press both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to engage in talks, according to a story from the official U.S. military press service. Meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, among others, are on his schedule.
Tensions in that region are high in part over the Palestinian Authority's push for recognition by the United Nations and Israel's plans to build 1,100 new homes in disputed territory in south Jerusalem.
Israel announced Sunday that it supports the Middle East Quartet's call for direct talks with Palestinian leaders to resume within a month.
Abbas has said repeatedly that the Palestinians would not return to negotiations until Israel halts all settlement construction and agrees to redraw borders so they mirror those in place before the 1967 war. And top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat reiterated Sunday that Palestinians "want to hear from" Israel, but only if these conditions -- which he claims the Quartet backs -- were first met.
In his discussions with Israeli leaders, Panetta said Sunday that he will reaffirm "our strong security relationship" and "make clear that we will protect their qualitative military edge ... that, as they take risks for peace, that we will be able to provide the security they need."
He also offered U.S. help to Israel to improve its recently deteriorating relationships with some neighbors, "particularly ... Turkey and Egypt."
Turkey and Israel continue to be at odds in the aftermath of an Israeli commando raid on the SS Mavi Marmara heading to the blockaded Gaza Strip that resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists. Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expelled Israel's ambassador over that nation's refusal to apologize for the incident.
Public opposition in Egypt, meanwhile, against its peace treaty with Israel appears to be growing, while protesters last month attacked Israel's embassy.
That still unsettled nation, where a peaceful revolution culminated in the February ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, will be Panetta's next stop.
A military-led council then took over, promising reforms and a new government. But frustrations have continued to simmer, and a coalition of 60 political parties and groups -- including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood -- last week threatened to boycott November's parliamentary elections unless the military rulers meet specific demands.
Panetta will meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as well as Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, according to the U.S. military press service. He said Sunday that he intends to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a strong, long-term military relationship with Egypt. The U.S. secretary thanked Tantawi for his quick response in September, after the Israeli embassy attack.
Later, Panetta will head to Brussels, Belgium, for a meeting of NATO defense ministers. The coalition has been involved in a number of ongoing military campaigns, including over Libya and in Afghanistan.
Besides optimizing success and learning from such missions, he acknowledged that nations' tight budgets might affect how the alliance goes about its mission.
"It's very important now, as we face those budget constraints, to try to develop approaches that allow us to share capabilities, allow us to share technologies and allow us to work together closely in order to ensure that NATO can fulfill its role of providing security," Panetta said Sunday, according to the U.S. military account.