U.S.-Israel ties at risk when Netanyahu meets Obama

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  May 18, 2009 at 9:58 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 18 (UPI) -- When the prime minister of Israel visits the president of the United States on Monday, Binyamin Netanyahu will say "Iran," and Barack Obama will say "Palestine." The two men look set on a collision course on both those issues.

Netanyahu has already prepared carefully for the meeting and is trying to avoid a head-on collision. But he is up against two huge problems: the aggressive confidence of the new Obama administration that they can and must push through a credible Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement fast and the heritage of dislike and distrust that Obama administration foreign policymakers have carried over against Netanyahu from the Clinton administration.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Middle East peace negotiator George Mitchell and Iran envoy Dennis Ross are all veterans of Bill Clinton's two terms in office and of his commitment to the Oslo peace process. Netanyahu did not destroy the Oslo peace process. It was Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat who did that in the Camp David II summit in July 2000, a year after Netanyahu was voted out of power. But the Clinton administration veterans who now run foreign policy and national security for Obama have never forgiven Netanyahu for eventually succeeding their beloved Yitzhak Rabin and expressing his own skepticism of their even more-beloved Oslo process.

Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and their advisers want focused talks designed to lead quickly to creating a Palestinian state. Netanyahu doesn't want talks at all and is skeptical about any prospect of getting a stable, credible peace agreement out of them. With Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, as firmly in control of Gaza as ever and poised to win the municipal elections later this year on the West Bank, he has good reason to be skeptical.

Netanyahu will want to avoid an outright break with the Americans and agree to talks, while backpedaling from his previous blanket refusal to consider the very possibility of a Palestinian state.

Obama wants no new settlement building and outposts demolished. But Netanyahu is committed to continue building in existing settlements. His defense minister, Ehud Barak, offered more concessions to the Palestinians at the 2000 Camp David summit during his stint as prime minister than any other Israeli leader ever has, and he is still relatively dovish on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank.

But looking over Netanyahu and Barak's shoulders is their super-hawk Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who stripped a lot of right-wing support from Netanyahu in the Feb. 10 election to make his Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is our Home") Party the third largest in Israel. A member of Netanyahu's Likud Party said Saturday that the prime minister won't be prepared to accept Obama and Clinton's beloved two-state solution. If that proves to be the case, the first Oval Office meeting of the two men could prove to be a very icy one.

Obama and Clinton have steeled themselves to turn the screws on Netanyahu. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who is Jewish, has told American Jewish leaders that the administration is determined to push through its peace-settlement conception and won't let them stand in the way.

Obama has already started to pile on the pressure on Israel to prevent it from launching any unilateral airstrikes against Iran's rapidly expanding nuclear-weapons capability. The U.S. president sent a letter to Netanyahu ahead of Monday's meeting warning that he doesn't want to be surprised with an Israeli attack on Iran. Netanyahu, no doubt, will reply that he doesn't want to be surprised by an Iranian intermediate-range ballistic missile vaporizing Tel Aviv and the two-thirds of the population of Israel that are concentrated in its coastal strip. Israel is understandably concerned about a country that is led by people who have called for the Jewish state's destruction and have denied the Holocaust.

Netanyahu hasn't publicly accepted the idea of an independent Palestinian state, an idea several of his predecessors have accepted. Last week Pope Benedict XVI, who was in the Middle East, joined the call for such an outcome. Obama has been on that page all along.

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