President Barack Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for their first meeting on Monday as discord over Mideast peace and Iran’s nuclear bid clouds ties between the close allies. The meeting marks Obama’s most testing diplomatic challenge yet after he vowed to vigorously engage in attaining an elusive regional peace as part of a comprehensive strategy to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff. Israel’s hawkish premier, who wants a “fresh” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was set to 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 persistent 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”.
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 officials 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 at the Annapolis naval academy near Washington in 2007.
Netanyahu this month called for a 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.
Obama is also under pressure from human rights groups, with Human Rights Watch demanding Sunday the his administration endorse a comprehensive UN investigation into alleged violations of international law during Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip in December and January.
The 59-year-old Israeli premier, who held the same office for a turbulent term at the height of the Oslo peace process between 1996 and 1999, 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 former president 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.
Meanwhile, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi called Netanyahu a “racist” and warned that “US officials should think of the American people” and not “make them partners” in Israel’s problems.