Panetta’s Advice for Mideast Peace Talks: ‘Just Get to the Damn Table’

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is known for his colorful language, and he had some advice tonight for restarting the stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians: “Just get to the damn table.”

Panetta  was speaking at a  Brookings Institution forum on the Middle East when during a question and answer session, he was asked what steps Israel should take to get talks under way again. 

A frustrated Panetta replied to applause: “Just get to the damn table, just get to the table,”  adding, “the problem right now is we can’t get them to the same table … to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences.” 

He said the obstacles to a potential agreement are known, but if both sides were to “sit at a table and work through those concerns,  then the U.S. would assist them in a process that could eventually lead to a peace agreement.”  

 But “if they aren’t at the table, this will never happen,” he said.  ” So, first and foremost, get to the damn table.”

The comments were reminiscent of  Panetta’s colorful advice to Iraq’s leaders this past summer when he famously told them:  ”Dammit, make a decision.”  At the time Panetta was visiting Iraq, he was  frustrated with Iraqi leaders for not deciding whether they wanted the U.S. to remain in Iraq beyond this year’s troop withdrawal deadline. 

 In his prepared remarks at Friday night’s forum, Panetta urged Israel to address its growing isolation with its neighbors.    ”Unfortunately, over the past year we’ve seen Israel’s isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow, and the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace has effectively been put on hold,” he said.

Panetta also reaffirmed the administration’s worries about the threat that a nuclear armed Iran would pose, and that the U.S. was doing all it could to prevent that from happening.  He worried that it might lead to a regional nuclear arms race or even worse, a regional conflict.    

Combined with this week’s storming of the British Embassy, Iran was continuing to isolate itself from the rest of the international community, making itself a “pariah in that region.”  Panetta believes that the combination of economic and diplomatic sanctions are the best way to ultimately weaken Iran.  He said they were having an impact  noting that Iran’s leadership was “off-balance” when it came  to  trying to establish civility within Iran.

Panetta sounded much like his predecessor, Robert Gates, when he said tonight that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would only delay its nuclear-weapons efforts by a year or two. 

And as Gates did, Panetta also warned about the unintended consequences of a strike on Iran that might lead it to regain regional support and  potentially lead   to attacks on U.S. ships and military bases .

Touching on the turmoil in Syria, Panetta expressed confidence that international pressure exerted on Syria was having an effect and that it was ”a matter of time” before Syrian President Basher al-Assad stepped down.  But for that to happen Panetta said the international community needed to keep the pressure on Assad’s government.