TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday called for "bold action" from Israeli and Palestinian leaders to achieve peace after cautioning that Israel was becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle East.
Panetta, making his first trip to Israel since becoming Pentagon chief, met Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the start of his visit which includes separate talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"I want to emphasize that there is a need, and an opportunity, for bold action on both sides to move toward a negotiated two-state solution. There is no alternative to negotiations," Panetta said at a news conference with Barak.
U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month limited moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Abbas has conditioned a return to negotiations on a settlement freeze and applied last month for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations, a move opposed by the United States and Israel which have urged him to resume talks.
Speaking to reporters on his flight to Israel, Panetta said he would reaffirm U.S. security commitments to Israel and try to help it improve its increasingly chilly relations with Turkey and Egypt.
"It's pretty clear, 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. And that is what has happened," Panetta said on the plane.
Speaking at the news conference with Panetta, Barak said: "It is clear that in the world as a whole there are many who would like to see Israel cornered into a sort of isolation and it is clear to us that we have a responsibility to try to moderate, to ease tensions."
Panetta's visit to the Middle East, which includes meetings with Egyptian leaders, comes at a time when Arab popular demand for political change has shaken the region, raising hopes, tensions and uncertainty.
Protests toppled governments in Tunisia and longtime U.S. ally Egypt earlier this year and touched off a civil war in Libya that led to the ouster of leader Muammar Gaddafi.
But the changes have sometimes been unsettling.
Egyptian protesters invaded the Israeli Embassy in Cairo a month ago in anger over a clash that killed five border guards. The military government's handling of that incident and comments afterward raised concerns about Cairo's future commitment to its long-standing peace deal with Israel.
"The timing (of Panetta's visit) couldn't be more apt given the events unfolding in the region and broad range of important issues on the agenda with the Israelis and the Egyptians," a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On the flight to Israel, Panetta said he would make clear to Israel that the United States would protect its "qualitative military edge."
"As they take risks for peace, we will be able to provide the security that they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room hopefully to negotiate," he said.
Iran and its nuclear program also will be on Panetta's agenda. He said with much of the world opposed to Iran developing its nuclear capabilities, it would be best to work together to try to curb Tehran's ambitions rather than take unilateral action.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Roger Atwood)