Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to leave on Sunday morning for a meeting with US President Barack Obama, even as Iran and the Palestinian issue are taking a back seat in Washington to the crisis in Ukraine.
Neither Netanyahu nor the Foreign Ministry has issued any statement concerning the dramatic developments in Ukraine, although the situation facing Ukraine’s Jews has been raised in high-level meetings.
One government official said that the Netanyahu-Obama meeting on Monday is still set to focus on Iran and the Palestinians, despite the mounting US tension with Russia. The main impact of the Ukrainian crisis on Netanyahu’s five-day visit will likely be less media attention, the official said.
The prime minister is also scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry and with congressional leaders.
He is slated to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference on Tuesday, a day after Kerry is to speak at the gathering.
Netanyahu’s meetings with Obama and Kerry will come some four weeks before Israel is scheduled to release the last tranche of 26 Palestinian security prisoners as part of the framework agreed upon last July to get the PLO to return to the negotiating table. It is expected that Kerry will try to present his much-anticipated document that is to serve as a basis for continued talks between the two sides before the prisoner release.
Kerry is expected to travel back to Israel in mid-March for another round of shuttle diplomacy, following Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu and an expected meeting in Washington with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
On the Iranian issue, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu confidant, wrote an op-ed in Saturday’s Washington Post arguing that a final deal between the world powers and Tehran that would allow the Islamic Republic to retain centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
That would ultimately “allow the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, encourage a Sunni-Shi’ite arms race in the Middle East and weaken counterproliferation efforts worldwide.”
Netanyahu has made clear he is opposed to what has emerged as the US position, that Iran could retain a limited uranium enrichment capability under the longterm agreement.
“Acquiescing to Iranian enrichment is tantamount to legitimizing Iran’s status on the nuclear threshold,” Steinitz wrote. “The chances of Iran developing the bomb as a ‘threshold country’ are considerable: North Korea did so after signing a similar deal in 2007.” He said that “sooner or later” Iran would “dash toward a fait accompli nuclear weapon.”
Moreover, Steinitz wrote, any deal that “legitimizes Iran as an unpunished, sanctions- free country on the nuclear threshold might spark a nuclear arms race in the region, as Saudi Arabia has hinted. Some Sunni states might seek to develop the bomb in a bid to achieve parity with Iran or to ensure their ability to join the nuclear club if Tehran does.”
Steinitz, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin and opposition head Isaac Herzog are expected to attend the AIPAC convention, with Livni and Herzog due to speak on Sunday night Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz is also in Washington to take part in the AIPAC conference and held meetings with senior Democratic senators and congressmen.
According to a statement he released, they voiced displeasure at efforts by “elements inside the coalition and in Israel to take advantage of the internal political rivalry in the US to influence Obama, Kerry and the Democratic Party regarding the negotiations with the Palestinians and to use Jewish organizations for this purpose.
“Netanyahu needs to stop the harmful meddling in American politics, and his people need to stop presenting government officials and senior Democrats as hostile to Israel,” Horowitz said.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon sent the prime minister a letter of support ahead of his trip to the US.
“I have no doubt that you will faithfully represent the Likud’s values, foremost of which is protecting the State of Israel’s security, and will not be deterred by pressure to divide Jerusalem or return to pre-1967 lines,” Danon wrote, despite battling Netanyahu in court over control of Likud procedures last week.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.