Defense Secretary Panetta spoke to reporters aboard a U.S. military jet en route to Israel, as the Jewish state was announcing it had accepted a proposal by the quartet of Middle East mediators to return to talks without preconditions.
Panetta wants to reaffirm America's commitment to Israel's security, in the hope that it will take what he said are the risks necessary for peace and ensure that Israeli leaders have room to negotiate. He called on Israelis and Palestinians to work toward a peace settlement.
"The fact is I don't think they really lose anything by getting into negotiations. The fact is no one is going to tell them exactly what agreements they have to make. No one is going to tell them exactly what they have to give up. That is all part of the negotiating process."
The defense secretary says he will offer reassurances to the Palestinians, who have refused to return to talks unless Israel stops settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Palestinian leaders drew world attention last month by submitting a bid for full membership at the United Nations -- a move criticized by Israel and the United States.
Panetta warned that Israel has much to lose unless it mends relations with nations in the region in the wake of the democratic changes across much of the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year. He said he believes Israeli leaders need to mend ties with Turkey and Egypt.
“I want to ask them how we can be helpful in trying to improve those relations. 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 -- and that's what's happening.”
Israel and Egypt had a cold but stable relationship until the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. Since then, relations have become tense, with incidents including an Israeli raid in Egypt's Sinai region that killed six Egyptian guards and an attack by a mob on the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
Iran's nuclear program is also on Panetta's agenda in Israel, where some have called for a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear targets. In his remarks on Sunday, the U.S. defense secretary urged Israel to pursue a regional solution rather than take unilateral action.