By Amy Teibel
Monday, May 18, 2009
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, worried by U.S. overtures to Iran and Syria and under pressure to support a Palestinian state, arrived in Washington yesterday for his first visit with President Obama.
The two leaders, set to meet today at the White House, bring divergent policies on how to approach the Middle East conflict.
The Obama administration is trying to promote dialogue with Iran and Syria, Israel's arch foes. Israel fears such efforts could lead to tolerance for Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Netanyahu regards as the greatest threat to his country.
In the run-up to his election in February, Netanyahu derided the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which stalled late last year, as a waste of time. He has made clear that he does not think the Palestinians are ready to rule themselves.
That position puts him at odds with the United States, which supports Palestinian statehood as the cornerstone of broader regional peace efforts. Now Netanyahu is feeling pressure from Washington to endorse Palestinian statehood, and there were some hints that he might be shifting his position.
On the eve of his meeting with Obama, there were conflicting signals on the Israeli leader's stance.
Israel's president, Shimon Peres, said Sunday in Jordan that Netanyahu would abide by agreements signed by his predecessors, including the U.S.-backed peace plan calling for a two-state solution to the conflict with Palestinians. Peres said progress depends on an end to attacks by Islamist Hamas fighters and greater Palestinian efforts to ensure Israel's security.
Just before Netanyahu left 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 Israel's Channel 2 TV on Saturday.
In remarks yesterday, however, Israel's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, left a different impression.
"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 Hamas 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 is also scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and congressional leaders.