|Panetta is due to meet his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak in Jerusalem on Monday [Reuters]
Leon Panetta, the new US defence secretary, says Washington is committed to ensuring Israel maintains a "qualitative military edge" in the Middle East, but warned that the country is becoming increasingly isolated.
Panetta, who is due to arrive in Israel on Monday on his first visit to the region since taking charge at the Pentagon, said he planned to use the trip to reaffirm US security commitments to Israel and try to improve its deteriorating 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 told reporters on his plane.
"The important thing there is to again reaffirm our strong security relationship with Israel, to make clear that we will protect their qualitative military edge," Panetta said.
"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."
Panetta said he was confident Israel had maintained its military superiority in the region "but the question you have to ask is - is it enough to maintain an military edge if you are isolating yourself diplomatically?"
Panetta will hold meetings with Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, and Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, to discuss issues including bilateral defence relations and border security.
He is also scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, just days after the US opposed their bid for statehood at the United Nations.
Panetta said he would be urging both sides to return to the negotiating table.
"You are not going to achieve Middle East peace by trying to slam-dunk it at the UN. The only way you're going to achieve it is by negotiations," he said.
Israel says it is ready to participate in negotiations but the Palestinians say Israel must first halt its expansion of settlements in illegally occupied territory. Israel recently announced it would add 1,100 new homes to a settlement near Jerusalem.
"As long as Israel refuses to freeze settlement activities in the occupied territories and refuses to recognise the 1967 borders, there is no way we can have negotiations", Mustapha Barghouti, a Palestinian official, said on Sunday.
His comment came after Israel welcomed a proposal drafted by the Middle East Quartet - the US, the European Union, the UN, and Russia - to resume talks.
Panetta is due to travel to Egypt after his visits to Israel and the West Bank.
Israel's relations with its neighbour are tense after protesters invaded the Israeli embassy in Cairo last month, angered by a clash that killed five border guards.
Panetta said he would express his appreciation to interim military rulers for intervening during the riots and to reaffirm Washington's longstanding military ties with Egypt.
He said he would also urge Egypt's military rulers to press ahead with plans to hold elections that will secure democratic rule, "so that Egypt can move towards a civilian government that represents the will of the people."