Obama, Netanyahu To Tackle Mideast Issues

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Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is signaling he may resist President Barack Obama‘s pressure to support Palestinian statehood as the two leaders try to tackle an array of Mideast issues Monday on which they disagree.

A senior aide to Netanyahu, national security adviser Uzi Arad, suggested the Israeli leader might not yield to pressure from Obama for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. He also seemed to hint that Israel might consider military action against Iran when he said there was a “sense of urgency” in Israel over the Iranian nuclear threat.

Such rhetoric suggests diplomatic high stakes as the two men hold their first White House meeting against a backdrop of disagreement over several key issues: U.S. overtures to once-shunned Iran and Syria and pressure on Israel to support a Palestinian state.

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.

Before his Feb. 10 election, Netanyahu derided the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which stalled late last year, as a waste of time.

Jewish settlement activity is another source of potential conflict with the United States.

In Israel on Monday, settlers announced that government officials have begun taking bids to build infrastructure for a fledgling Jewish community deep in the West Bank. The timing of the announcement could cause friction at the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.

Palestinians want Obama to tell the Israelis that they have obligations under an existing U.S.-backed peace plan to accept the two-state solution and stop settlement construction, said Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and longtime negotiator.

While not opposing the Obama administration’s efforts to promote dialogue with Iran and Syria, Israel is skeptical. Like Washington, it dismisses Tehran’s claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and fears the U.S. outreach could lead to greater tolerance for Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Israelis are also worried by the recent diplomatic shuttles to Syria for fear they reward Damascus even as it maintains close ties to Tehran and harbors Iranian proxies that have warred with Israel, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Gaza’s Hamas.

Still, there have been mixed signals from the Israelis on the Mideast peace process ahead of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.

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.

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. Israel’s security services see the Netanyahu-Obama meeting as crucial in this regard, and the military chief of staff, the head of military intelligence and the Mossad chief all held lengthy meetings with the prime minister ahead of the trip, defense officials said.

The meetings focused on what Israel sees as Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons and on the effect that would have in strengthening Iran’s allies in Hamas and Hezbollah and undermining the stability of Western-allied Arab countries.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings were not made public.

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.

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