NBC News
updated 12/2/2011 8:35:06 PM ET 2011-12-03T01:35:06

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had a blunt, candid message Friday for Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the stalled peace process: "Just get to the damn table."

Speaking at a Brookings Institution forum on the Middle East, Panetta said that if the Israelis and Palestinians just sit at the table and work through the concerns, they could come to an agreement.

"First and foremost, get to the damn table," he said, eliciting applause and eventually a standing ovation.

Panetta warned of Israel's growing isolation, and urged the leaders to "reach out and mend fences."

Asked about Iran's increasingly provocative actions and when a military response would be inevitable, Panetta said that the U.S. always has military action as an option on the table, but it "must be a last resort."

Panetta warned of the "unintended consequences" of military action against Iran, including:

  • the isolated regime would re-establish itself in the region;
  • the US would be blamed and would become a target of retaliation, especially US military and diplomatic posts overseas;
  • the fragile economies in Europe and US would be further taxed,

Panetta predicted that if a military escalation took place, it would not only involve many lives, but it would consume the region.

He admitted that it "would be devastating" if Iran got nuclear weapon and that the international community must do everything possible to make sure that doesn't happen.

Panetta also acknowledged that any military strikes meant to stop Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations would only set back the program one to two years, not destroy it.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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