Israel PM in U.S. for First Obama Meeting


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads into his first visit with President Barack Obama worried by U.S. overtures to Iran and Syria and under pressure to support a Palestinian state.

The two leaders, set to meet Monday at the White House, bring diverging policies on how to approach the Mideast conflict.
The Obama administration is trying to promote dialogue with Iran and Syria, Israel's arch foes. Israel fears such efforts could lead to greater tolerance for Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But Israel and the U.S. dismiss Iran's claims that its nuclear program is designed to produce energy rather than weapons. Netanyahu regards as the greatest threat to Israel -- a fear magnified by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated references to Israel's annihilation.

In the run-up to the Feb. 10 election, Netanyahu derided the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which stalled late last year, as a waste of time. He has made clear in the past that he does not think the Palestinians are ready to rule themselves.

But that position has put him at odds with U.S. policy that supports Palestinian statehood as the cornerstone of broader Mideast peace efforts. Now, he's feeling the pressure from Washington to endorse Palestinian statehood, and there were some hints that he might be shifting his position.

On the eve of Netanyahu's meeting with Obama, there were conflicting signals on the Israeli leader's position.

Israel's president, Shimon Peres, said Sunday in Jordan that Netanyahu would abide by agreements signed by his predecessors, including the U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan calling for a two-state solution to the conflict with Palestinians. Peres said progress depended on an end to attacks by Hamas militants and greater Palestinian efforts to ensure Israel's security.

Just before Netanyahu set off for Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he thought peace with the Palestinians could be achieved within three years.

"I think and believe that Netanyahu will tell Obama this government is prepared to go for a political process that will result in two peoples living side by side in peace and mutual respect," Barak told Channel 2 TV on Saturday.

However, on Sunday, Israel's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, left a different impression, saying "there might be even some differences in approach" with Obama.

"There are many hurdles" on the road to living side by side in peace with the Palestinians, Arad said, citing the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Islamic Hamas militants in June 2007. "That is the presence of a huge terrorist infrastructure that was put in place, established precisely at the time when Israel evacuated Gaza and allowed the Palestinians to rule themselves."

Senior White House officials said Obama's meeting with Netanyahu is part of his commitment to pursue a comprehensive peace that includes a two-state solution.

Netanyahu has tried to persuade the Americans that Iran, with its nuclear ambitions and anti-Israel proxies in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, must be reined in before peacemaking with the Palestinians can progress. But the Americans have not been persuaded and want to see serious progress on peacemaking so moderate Arab states won't have a reason to shun an international alliance meant to curb Iran.

There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding Syria in recent weeks.

An Obama envoy was in Syria to try to repair strained relations and assured the government the U.S. is committed to pursuing a comprehensive Mideast peace. His Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, plans a trip to Syria.

Peres on Sunday urged Syria to open direct peace talks and said some had suggested Syrian President Bashar Assad and Netanyahu meet.

"The Syrians should be ready to talk. If President Assad wants peace, why is he shy?" Peres said after participating in an international economic meeting.

Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Sunday, also scheduled meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and congressional leaders.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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