US-Israel ties: Why Obama wants more from Netanyahu

President Obama hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House today for the first time since March, when he humiliated Mr. Netanyahu amid a US-Israel flap over settlements.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
The Jewish settlement of Ofra is seen in front of the West Bank village of Silwad, near Ramallah July 5. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking forward to a warmer White House welcome from U.S. President Barack Obama after their relationship hit a low point over Jewish settlement policy. Due at the White House on Tuesday for talks, Netanyahu will be able to point to boxes he has ticked on Obama's wish list of steps towards peace.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama today, the diplomatic clock is ticking.

After US envoy George Mitchell returned home after another round of indirect talks last week, Americans are impatient for substantive progress before Israel's temporary freeze on West Bank settlements expires in September. Such progress will not only move Israelis and Palestinians closer to a peace deal, it will also help the US shore up international support for implementing the recently approved United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran's nuclear program.

"There are a lot of factors that are coming together at the moment. And there is a question of how long it can carry on like this. The process is going no where,'' says one locally based Western diplomat who requested to remain anonymous. "The American patience is growing thin. There are factors banging on the door for Israel, like its diplomatic isolation. And time is running out on the two-state solution.''

Mr. Netanyahu's trip to Washington will be his first since March. Coming amid what some characterized as unprecedented strains in the US-Israel relationship, Netanyahu's last White House visit was widely seen as humiliating – no press conference, and not even a photo opportunity. Since then, the international furor over Israel's fatal intercept of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla has left Netanyahu more isolated than ever.

Netanyahu's reception is expected to be warmer this time after Israel showed responsiveness to US demands for an easing of the Gaza blockade.

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What Obama wants

The Israeli leader is expected to be pressed by the Obama administration to extend a temporary moratorium on building new housing in the Jewish settlements, say analysts.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visited the White House last month, will be prodded to drop his reluctance to engage in the face-to-face negotiations that Netanyahu keeps asking for. Mr. Abbas has been under pressure from Palestinians not to enter direct negotiations until Israel commits to a permanent settlement freeze. So far, Israel has agreed only to a 10-month building moratorium, which expires at the end of September.

"The deal that Obama is going to present to [Netanyahu] is extension of the settlement freeze in return for direct negotiations,'' says Gershon Baskin, the co-director of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "The Americans are extremely nervous about Sept. 26."

Netanyahu's goals and constraints

Extending the building moratorium is risky for Netanyahu because of potential criticism from his right-wing and religious coalition partners, and he is expected to request a quid pro quo from the US. But if he renews building, he could risk losing the center-left Labor party, which would destabilize his coalition and shift the administration to the right.

But progress in talks would also help the Israeli prime minister deflate some of the diplomatic pressure Israel has faced after nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed May 31 by Israeli commandos who besieged an aid ship aiming to break Israel's Gaza blockade.

At a reception for US Independence Day at the residence of the US Ambassador to Israel, Netanyahu reiterated his desire to meet Abbas at any time or in any place.

The US has been mediating indirect talks since May. The Arab League and the Palestinians approved the talks, subject to an assessment in four months – presumably early September.

On Friday, Obama adviser Daniel Shapiro said, "Talks have made progress and the gaps have been narrowed." He didn't go into details.

What Abbas wants

Palestinian President Abbas, meanwhile, has made a direct appeal to the Israeli public by granting a rare group interview to correspdondents for Israel's four major daily newspapers. He said he still sees the hard-line government as a partner for talks, though he accused Netanyahu of dragging his feet.

"[Netanyahu] has completely ignored everything we've raised," said Abbas, according to the daily Maariv newspaper.

Abbas told the Israeli daily newspapers that he's open to stationing international peacekeepers in the West Bank to help satisfy Israel's security concerns, but rejects an Israeli military presence. He's also open to modifications to land swaps based on the 1967 Israel-West Bank border – a position that would allow Israel to annex some large settlements in return for land elsewhere.

Despite Abbas' reluctance to engage Netanyahu directly until now, the Palestinian leader may do so eventually in order to pave the way for a US compromise plan that would further pressure Israel.

Palestinians know that they have "to check off that box of direct talks'' before the US will publish a peace plan,'' says David Makovsky, coauthor of a book on Middle East negotiations called "Myths, Illusions and Peace.'' "The Palestinians want to look like they've made every good faith effort on the peace process.''

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