Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday consulted on how best to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, particularly given Israeli concerns over protecting its eastern front, as well as possible US security guarantees for any regional peace accord that would be signed.

 



The two men discussed balancing Israeli capabilities and needs with any technology and weaponry supplied to Arab countries. The US has been increasing the supply of defensive military systems to the latter, to bolster allies in the face of the growing threat from Iran, which has also spurred defensive cooperation with Israel.

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In addition, after over seven years – since the US invasion of Iraq – in which Israel has paid relatively little attention to threats from the east, the prospect of an American troop withdrawal from Iraq in the near future has given rise in Jerusalem to renewed concern – and strategic planning – for the day after a US redeployment.

According to Israeli government sources, at the meeting with Gates – also attended by Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff – Netanyahu received a briefing on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of Jerusalem’s concerns is that regional alliances that the US was hoping to build with moderate Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon could conflict with the American policy of maintaining Israel’s military edge.

Netanyahu also spoke with Gates about the possibility of the US providing Israel with security guarantees in the event of a peace arrangement in the region. Peace agreements on paper were not enough alone to provide security, the prime minister said.

He pointed out that there were agreements meant to prevent the transfer of arms to both Hizbullah in south Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza, but that these agreements have not kept the Iranians from providing both Hamas and Hizbullah with enormous quantities of missiles and ammunition.

The meeting with Gates wrapped up the Washington portion of Netanyahu’s US visit, following his Oval Office conversations with President Barack Obama on Tuesday and a separate meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later on Tuesday afternoon.

Obama left the impression he had accepted an invitation to visit Israel, but do not expect the trip any time soon.

During Obama’s relationship-patching meeting at the White House on Tuesday with Netanyahu, the Israeli leader publicly asked the president and first lady Michelle Obama to come.

Netanyahu said, “It’s about time.” Obama replied that he looked forward to it.

But on Wednesday, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that a trip is, as he put it, “not on the books for this year.”

Noting that Obama had visited Israel as a candidate, Gibbs did not commit to when, or whether, a return trip would happen.

Clinton meeting focuses on move to direct talks

The meeting with Clinton, which, like his meeting with Gates, lasted more than an hour, focused on moving from proximity talks to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, according to State Department officials.

The subject was also a focus between Obama and Netanyahu in their one-on-one meeting, with both men agreeing on the need to start face-to-face talks as soon as possible.

The Palestinians have been refusing to move to direct talks unless Israel first addressed the core issues of borders and security in the indirect talks. They have also demanded that Israel extend its 10-month settlement construction moratorium, due to expire in September.

Obama, who pushed the Netanyahu government for the housing-start freeze last year, decline to publicly pressure the prime minister to extend the freeze when asked about it at Tuesday’s White House press conference.

But he suggested that the direct talks would start well before the moratorium expired on September 26, a move that could reduce the focus on the moratorium until a time when it would be politically easier for Netanyahu to extend the freeze.

“My hope is, is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Obama said.

Middle East expert David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy credited Obama with a clever move that gave Netanyahu political space to make the moves necessary to satisfy Palestinian demands enough to get to direct talks. This is a difficult balancing act because Netanyahu wants to avoid appearing as if he’s making concessions merely to get the talks to start and the Palestinians want to claim concessions to justify their going into talks.

“I think obviously they were trying to avoid any publicly explicit quid pro quo” of extending the moratorium for talks, Makovsky said of Obama and Netanyahu.

He added, “I think it goes beyond the moratorium, and that’s another reason why Netanyahu doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s moratorium-plus, not moratorium-minus.”

Possible additional measures include expanded Palestinian security control in the West Bank – a confidence-building measure Obama alluded to on Tuesday – as well as an agreement that the conversation about territory will start with the June 4, 1967, lines as a base.

According to Makovsky, Obama’s willingness to refrain from pressing Netanyahu publicly on the issue was a sign of the coordinated views between the two countries as well as a result of an American decision to avoid public clashes with Israel and employ a more positive tone.

“There’s clearly an effort to upgrade the talks. The US and Israel are clearly on the same page about this. There’s no doubt that that’s the object of both parties. The question is on what terms,” he said.

But following the White House meeting, the Palestinian Authority stressed that it was unwilling to launch direct talks unless all settlement construction had been halted and all core issues such as Jerusalem and the refugees were first solved.

Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians were also insisting that future talks with Israel would be launched from the point where they were stopped in September 2008, under prime minister Ehud Olmert.

“The Palestinian Authority wants direct negotiations with Israel,” Erekat said in an interview with the Bethlehem-based Maan news agency. “But we have stated more than once that Israel is placing obstacles.”

Erekat said he was unaware of any changes in the position of the US administration regarding moving from proximity talks to direct negotiations with Israel.

“We presented all what we have to the Americans, but we still haven’t received replies,” he said.

Obama met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas last month and heard directly from him what Palestinians were looking for to move to direct talks.

Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said the Palestinians want to know on what basis Israel is seeking to negotiate with them.

“We want to know which borders Israel wants to negotiate about,” he said. “We also want to know which projects the Palestinians could carry out, especially at the Dead Sea area, to boost the Palestinian economy.”

Abu Rudaineh said the PA would not agree to conduct direct negotiations with Israel unless progress is first achieved on the issues of security and the borders of a Palestinian state. He added that in any case the PA needs the approval of the Arab League to continue the peace talks with Israel.

The Arab League agreed to four months of proximity talks that would last until September, at which point the process would be evaluated.

Another key focus of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting consisted of US assurances to Israel that its backing of the final document that emerged from the recent Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference did not signal a change in policy toward Israel.

The document singles out Israel, in a move viewed with concern as a prelude to international pressure on Jerusalem to sign the NPT and to eventually call for the disarmament of Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal.

But Obama on Tuesday insisted that US policy had not changed and a statement put out by the White House after their meeting stressed several points important to Israel.

“As a cosponsor charged with enabling the proposed conference, the United States will insist that such a conference will be for discussion aimed at an exchange of views on a broad agenda,” it read. “The president emphasized that the conference will only take place if all countries feel confident that they can attend, and that any efforts to single out Israel will make the prospects of convening such a conference unlikely.”

The statement additionally underscored that the US and Israel also “agreed to work together to oppose efforts to single out Israel at the IAEA General Conference in September.”

While the two leaders also addressed US civilian nuclear assistance to Israel, Israeli officials denied reports in the Hebrew-language media that America had sent Israel a letter making guarantees on the subject.

Later on Wednesday, Netanyahu traveled to New York where he met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a closed-door session. A press conference scheduled to take place at the UN immediately after the meeting was canceled in favor of a photo-op of the secretary-general and Netanyahu.

Netanyahu was then to proceed to the Plaza Hotel to address a gathering of Jewish leaders organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

AP contributed to this report.

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