Israel partly to blame for growing isolation in region, says US

imageThe United States has delivered an unusually blunt critique of Israel’s foreign policy by claiming that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was partly responsible for its growing isolation in the region.

Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, suggested that Israel carried a portion of the blame for its deteriorating relationship with Turkey and Egypt, two vital allies whose ties with the Jewish state have become increasingly strained in recent weeks.

Speaking as he arrived in the Holy Land on Monday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mr Panetta gave warning that Israel’s dependence on its military dominance was not a sufficient safeguard given the dramatic shifts in the Middle East’s political landscape in the wake of the Arab Spring.

“There’s not much question in my mind that they maintain that (military) edge,” he said. “But the question you have to ask is it enough to maintain a military edge if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena.

“At this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, it’s not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that’s what happening.”

An aide to Mr Panetta confirmed that the defence secretary viewed Israel’s growing isolation as partially a product of its own actions.

Mr Panetta’s assessment is likely to anger Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish foreign minister, and other hardline figures in the government, who have blamed their diplomatic woes on what they characterise as growing radicalism in the region.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has emerged as a virulent critic of the Netanyahu administration since last month’s expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Ankara in a row over Israel’s deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May, 2010.

Israeli diplomats were also evacuated from Egypt last month after a mob stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Mr Panetta did not specify how Israel was to blame for either incident, although the Netanyahu government has come under fire for its perceived haughtiness in its dealings with Turkey and for killing five Egyptian border guards in August following a gun battle with suspected militants.

Pentagon officials in the past have also expressed concern that a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was costing America “blood and treasure” because the issue had become of such propaganda value to Islamist terror groups.

Even as Mr Panetta delivered his warning, Israel’s standing in the Middle East suffered a further blow after suspected Jewish extremists set fire to a mosque near Lake Galilee, allegedly incinerating several copies of the Koran.

The incident was the latest in a spate of similar arson attacks on mosques, but was the first outside the West Bank in over a year. Graffiti daubed on the walls of the gutted mosque suggested the attack had been carried out in revenge for the deaths of an Israeli settler and his infant son, killed last month in a road accident that have may have been caused after a stone was allegedly thrown at their vehicle by unknown Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu strongly condemned the attack, saying: “This is an act which is against the values of the state of Israel, which places supreme importance on freedom of religion and freedom of worship.”

Mr Panetta, who called for a resumption of Middle East peace negotiations, also expressed his criticism of a decision by Congress to withhold nearly £130 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority. Congress, eager to burnish its pro-Israel credentials, has threatened a total severance of aid to punish the Palestinians for their attempt to win statehood at the United Nations.

But both the Obama administration and the Israeli defence establishment have warned that any reduction of funding could undermine and maybe even cause the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

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