Obama hosts Netanyahu; Iran, Mideast peace strain ties
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Obama hosts Netanyahu; Iran, Mideast peace strain ties

President Barack Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for their first meeting on Monday as discord over Iran's nuclear bid and Mideast peace clouds ties between the close allies.

world Updated: May 18, 2009 10:30 IST

President Barack Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for their first meeting on Monday as discord over Iran's nuclear bid and Mideast peace clouds ties between the close allies.

The meeting marks Obamas's most testing diplomatic challenge yet after he vowed to vigorously engage to attain an allusive regional peace as part of a comprehensive strategy to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff.

The hawkish premier, who wants a "fresh" approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was set unveil in the White House meeting his own long-awaited policy for regional peace focused on countering Iran.

Yet Obama's hopes appear at odds with Netanyahu, who earned world criticism over his persistant refusal to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state, a bedrock principle of peace efforts in the Middle East for nearly two decades.

And while Obama wishes to make headway on the Palestinian track, Netanyahu's national security advisor Uzi Arad told reporters that the Iranian issue was set to top the leaders' talks in the Oval Office.

"There might be some differences in approach, but we are confident that the sense of pragmatism and the desire for progress will drive the discussions," Arad said.

Obama himself admitted in March that Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition did not make peacemaking any "easier" and his administration has fired off several sharp public messages towards Israel.

Netanyahu is expected to further irk his hosts and the Palestinians by telling Obama that Israel will keep building in existing settlements in the occupied West Bank, a key obstacle in the stuttering peace process.

But both US and Israeli official sought to play down any speculation of an open clash between the two leaders at the key summit.

Despite the friction, Netanyahu hopes to convince Obama of the viability of his new plan which will effectively replace the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in the Annapolis naval academy near Washington in 2007.

Netanyahu this month called for a "fresh" approach to the Middle East peace process based on a three-pronged approach including talks, security cooperation and development of the Palestinian economy.

He advocates bolstering the West Bank economy before negotiating a full peace deal, arguing the Palestinians are not ready for independence and that any Israeli concessions will only strengthen radical groups such as Hamas.

Netanyahu has also said he wishes to renew negotiations with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the coming weeks.

"If we bring forward a new plan, the Americans will not reject it if they feel it can help their policy," a senior Israeli official said.

But the Palestinians dismissed Netanyahu's proposal as ambiguous and insist that any peace talks should resume from the point reached during negotiations with his predecessor Ehud Olmert.

Washington is also said to be preparing a new peace plan, building on a Saudi-backed Arab initiative, perhaps for unveiling in Obama's address to the Muslim world in Egypt on June 4.

The 59-year-old premier, who held the same office for a turbulent term at the height of the Oslo peace process between 1996 and 1999, today assigns top priority to halting the "existential threat" of Iran's nuclear ambitions and sees little chance of progress in peace with Palestinians.

But the new tone of the Obama administration has raised fears in Israel that Washington may sacrifice the interests of its staunchest ally in its attempt to mend ties with the Muslim world strained under his predecessor George W. Bush.

Obama's break from Bush's tough approach to Iran by engaging in talks to defuse the nuclear standoff has also raised concern in Israel, which together with the United States accused Iran of seeking to develop an atomic bomb, a claim denied
by Tehran.

Israel says that any negotiations must be limited in time and accompanied by economic and diplomatic sanctions of the international community.

Obama said in an interview with Newsweek on Sunday that while he hasn't taken "any option off the table with respect to Iran" and that he understands Israel's concerns, the Jewish state should give Washington's policy a chance.

Like Obama, Netanyahu is seeking to form a regional coalition with moderate states such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to counter Iran's growing regional influence.

"In the Arab world there is agreement with our views of the Iranian danger," Netanyahu said after he met Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman on Thursday.

Obama and Netanyahu were planned to give a brief press conference after their meeting which will precede intimate lunch together with their wives.

Following the White House summit, Netanyahu will hold talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and with Congress members before he returns to Israel on Tuesday evening.

First Published: May 18, 2009 10:29 IST