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'Obama trip underlines strong US-Israel ties'
By HERB KEINON AND KHALED ABU TOAMEH
02/10/2013
In first public comment about upcoming visit, PM says he agreed with Obama to focus on Iran, Syria and the peace process.
 
US President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel is “very important” in underlining the strong US-Israeli ties at a time of a raging regional storm, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet on Sunday, in his first public comments about the presidential visit.

Netanyahu said he and Obama, when they spoke last month about the scheduled March visit, agreed that it would focus on three central issues: Iran’s race toward nuclear weapons; the instability in Syria and how that impacts on regional security, and both Israeli and US interests; and efforts to move the diplomatic process with the Palestinians forward.

Netanyahu said that these “very serious” issues necessitated as much national unity as possible, which he said was the aim of the current coalition negotiations.

“I welcome President Obama’s intention to visit Israel,” Netanyahu said. “This will be a very important visit that will emphasize the strong alliance between Israel and the US. I think that the importance of this alliance stands out even more given what is happening, in light of the great revolutions, the earthquakes that are taking place around us throughout the Middle East, from the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa and eastwards to Iran.”

Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho is scheduled to hold meetings in Washington this week to plan for the Obama trip, with National Security Council head Ya’acov Amidror expected to travel there next week for the same purpose.

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to say whether Netanyahu was planning “confidence-building measures” toward the Palestinians before the Obama visit in order to improve the atmosphere.

Among the ideas that have been raised in the past were a release of Palestinian prisoners or a partial settlement freeze, perhaps in settlements outside of the major settlement blocs.

One government official said there was no doubt that when a new government was formed it would “want to make an effort – measured and responsible – to advance the diplomatic process.” And, the official added, “we’ve always been ready to augment diplomacy with positive steps.”

While it was widely expected that US Secretary of State John Kerry would make his maiden visit to the region in his new role this week, the US State Department has not yet formally announced the visit or given any dates for the trip. Western diplomatic officials said Kerry was instrumental in convincing Obama to come to the region at this time.

Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Sunday that the Palestinian Authority is unaware of plans to hold a meeting between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu next month.

Commenting on reports that the two leaders may meet during Obama’s visit to the region next month, Erekat said that the US administration still has not briefed the PA leadership on details of Obama’s schedule.

Erekat said that the talk about a possible Abbas-Netanyahu summit was nothing but “Israeli analysis and statements.” He said that the PA leadership’s demands regarding the peace process remained unchanged – Israeli recognition of the pre-1967 lines as the borders of a Palestinian state and a full cessation of construction in settlements.

Erekat denied that Obama’s planned visit was behind the failure of the latest attempt to end the dispute between Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas and Fatah representatives who met in Cairo last weekend failed to reach agreement on the formation of a Palestinian unity government and holding new presidential and parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The US probably does not want Palestinian reconciliation,” Erekat said. “But President Abbas’s stance is that reconciliation is a higher Palestinian interest and priority.”

Army Radio, meanwhile, quoted unnamed officials as saying the Obama visit had more to do with trying to fend off an Israeli attack on Iran, then on making dramatic headway with the Palestinians. According to this report, the timing of the visit was linked to the timeline on Iran that Netanyahu spelled out in his September speech at the UN.

During that speech Netanyahu said Iran could finish the “second phase” of its nuclear program – stockpiling enough enriched uranium to produce a bomb – by the spring or summer, and then could easily move on to the third and final stage of putting together a nuclear detonator whenever it wished. He said it was necessary to ensure that the Iranians do not complete the second phase, which he described as his red line.

According to the radio report, Obama is coming to relay a direct message to Netanyahu not to take military action, and to let the US deal with the issue because it has capabilities that Israel does not.

Outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak alluded to these US capabilities last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, saying “there should be a readiness and an ability to launch a surgical operation that will delay [Iran] by a significant time frame.”

He added that the Pentagon has prepared “quite sophisticated, fine, extremely fine scalpels” for a surgical operation.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu also referred at the cabinet meeting to Friday’s arson at the Betar Jerusalem soccer team’s office in Jerusalem, sharply condemning it and saying displays of extremism must be “uprooted.”

The prime minister said he absolutely rejected “violence, racism and boycotts” in any sphere.
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