Ahead of summit, Obama and Netanyahu press different agendas

When the leaders meet Monday, the US will push for progress toward a Palestinian state, while Israel will ask for a harder line on Iran.

Moshe Milner/GPO/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara wave as they board a plane near Tel Aviv to come to Washington. Mr. Netanyahu will meet with President Obama at the White House on Monday.

Israel's new conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, comes to the White House Monday set on convincing President Obama that dealing with Iran must come before efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For his part, Mr. Obama wants the Israeli leader to see how progress on the Palestinian front can take the wind out of Tehran's sails and set Israel's neighborhood on a more stable course.

For both leaders, it's going to be a tough sell.

"Clearly what Netanyahu wants to know is: What will the US do if diplomacy with Iran fails? And what Obama wants to know is, where is Netanyahu going on the Palestinian issue?" says David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Each thinks the other is not committed to his priority, but each wants to know that the other at some point can say, 'Yes I can.'"

Mr. Netanyahu arrives in Washington having refused to endorse a two-state solution, in which a new Palestine would exist alongside Israel. He instead has called for focusing on economic and security advances for the Palestinian territories.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, sees the creation of a Palestinian state as a key part of the stability of the region.

How the two leaders resolve their differences will have significant impact on what many Middle East experts say is likely to be, one way or another, a momentous year in the region. Obama is under pressure to demonstrate that his approach is yielding results, while Iran is proceeding with work on a nuclear program that is bringing it closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu's White House visit will be followed later this month by visits from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Even more crucial, on June 4 Obama is scheduled to deliver his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world from Cairo.

As for Monday's meeting, administration officials seem to be playing down prospects for significant breakthroughs. But they and regional analysts acknowledge that when the president addresses the broader Islamic community from an Arab country, he must be able to offer concrete progress on the Palestinian issue.

"What Obama says in his speech cannot depend on what Netanyahu says or doesn't say in this meeting," says Stephen Cohen, a national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates a comprehensive Middle East peace accord. "Addressing the Palestinian issue will be an essential part of the president addressing the Muslim world from Cairo, and I'm quite sure they [in the White House] know that."

Netanyahu was also prime minister during part of the Clinton presidency, and he returns to power just as a new US administration is pressing to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process.

The Israeli leader's Iran-first argument might have played well in the Bush White House, which early on proceeded with a similar idea that addressing Baghdad first would lead to peace in Jerusalem.

But since Obama appointed former Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy for the Middle East in January, the president and other officials have made it clear that a first priority in their comprehensive vision for the region is a final settlement that includes a Palestinian state.

Vice President Joe Biden stressed this point in a recent speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel group. After warning the powerful lobby that it was "not going to like my saying this," he said that Israel must stick by its commitment to a two-state solution. He also said it must stop building settlements on Palestinian land and demolish existing outposts to pave the way for peace talks.

At Monday's meeting, success or failure should not be based on whether Netanyahu utters the words "two-state solution," Mr. Cohen says. Rather, it should be based on whether Obama is able to elicit from the Israeli prime minister an understanding "that the goal is a comprehensive peace," he adds, "and that this notion that dealing with the Palestinians' economic situation will be adequate is not enough."

Mr. Makovsky says he expects Netanyahu will offer assurances "privately" on the two-state solution by telling Obama he sticks by past Israeli agreements. That will mean he accepts the internationally formulated "road map" to a two-state solution – which the Israeli government approved in May 2003 – and a nonmilitarized Palestinian state.

To help convince skeptical Israeli officials to take up the peace process urgently and not leave it open-ended – as Netanyahu prefers – the Obama administration has hinted that it will take up engagement with Iran urgently. Dennis Ross, secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special adviser on Iran, has reportedly told European officials and others that the administration is setting an October deadline to see if talks with Tehran are progressing.

What would come after that remains unclear. If the engagement proves fruitless, that would pave the way for "crippling sanctions" on Tehran's economy backed by the international community, Secretary Clinton said in recent congressional testimony.

Israel may simply want assurances that Obama is not forsaking Israel in his pursuit of engagement with Iran. After all, Israel, too, is pursuing a settlement with a longtime enemy: Syria. "Israel is not trying to stop the US from talking to Iran, it just wants to be sure this won't be an open-ended exercise," says Makovsky, whose new book about the Middle East, "Myths, Illusions, and Peace," written with Mr. Ross, will be published next month.

One factor that may work in Obama's favor is that Netanyahu has had a rocky start at the helm of the Israeli government, while Obama remains popular in Israel. A new poll of Israelis released by the global grass-roots organization Avaaz.org shows that 59 percent of respondents find Obama "honest and trustworthy," whereas only 31 percent say that description applies to Netanyahu. The same poll found that a strong majority of Israelis want Obama to play a role in solving the conflict, while 53 percent say his involvement enhances the chances of reaching a two-state solution.

But perhaps more than political momentum, it's the deteriorating situation in the region – from extremism to potential nuclear proliferation – that will push the two leaders for action. "They don't have time to fool around," says the Policy Forum's Cohen. "They are going to have to talk turkey, which means real issues and real decision-making."

[Editor's note: The original photo caption misidentified Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu].

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