PM to ask Obama to put the focus back on Iran

Netanyahu set to travel to Washington after meeting with Likud ministers throughout the day; US national security adviser says Obama interested in keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER,
May 19, 2011 05:50
4 minute read.
Obama and Netanyahu

Obama Netanyahu 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to stress the significance of putting Iran back on the top of the international agenda in his White House meeting with US President Barack Obama on Friday.

The two leaders are also expected to address the wide range of regional issues confronting their countries – from the Arab uprisings to the killing of Osama bin Laden to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process – but that very full plate of topics has pushed Iran off the front burner, to the concern of many in Israel.

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Though Israel is aware that the United States still sees preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons as a crucial issue, Jerusalem would like to see the US and the international community return more attention to Tehran’s nuclear program.

The US has already indicated that it is also looking to raise the profile of the Iranian threat, with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon using a speech last Thursday to link bin Laden’s killing with US action on Iran.

“The quiet and determined pursuit of bin Laden is not the only example of how President Obama matches his words with action. This is also the case with respect to Iran,” Donilon told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “President Obama has long understood the regional and international consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state. That is why we are committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

He underscored the commitment on Iran with the long-term focus on getting bin Laden by declaring, “We do what we say we will do.”

Statements such as Donilon’s have given comfort to Israeli actors that believe Washington and Jerusalem are on the same page on most major issues, and that tensions evident between the two leaders in past encounters will be less a factor in this visit.

From the Israeli perspective, even the divisive issue of how to deal with the Palestinians has been diminished as the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal has provoked US skepticism about the prospect of peacemaking and the American president waits to see how Palestinian behavior on the ground changes.

Netanyahu spent Wednesday making final preparations for his flight on Thursday evening to Washington, meeting with Likud ministers throughout the day to, as one aide said, “share his thoughts with them, and hear what they have to say.”

He told the group of 15 Likud ministers and MKs that his definition of settlement blocs was broad. MK Danny Danon complained about the prime minister’s speech to the Knesset on Monday in which he said he said there was a consensus in Israel about maintaining settlement blocs and implied that he might not keep settlements outside the blocs.

When Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat asked Netanyahu to raise the fate of Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard in his meeting with Obama, Netanyahu said the case of Pollard “pained his heart.”

Netanyahu is schedule to leave for the US late on Thursday night, a number of hours after President Barack Obama delivers his speech on the Middle East.

He is scheduled to meet Obama on Friday morning at 11:15 for an hour, and then they will meet the press for 10 minutes for joint statements. No questions from journalists are scheduled to be taken.

After that the two men are scheduled to have a working lunch.

Obama is then scheduled to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday morning at 10:30, with Netanyahu addressing the gathering on Monday evening at 9 p.m. Washington time.

The next morning at 11, Netanyahu is scheduled to address a special joint session of Congress. Netanyahu, according to government sources, is working on the congressional speech with his senior adviser Ron Dermer. That speech, the sources said, will be the centerpiece of the visit, with the prime minister widely expected to tell Obama at their meeting what he intends to say.

Netanyahu is also expected during his visit to Washington to meet with other senior US administration officials, as well as the congressional leadership, with whom he will meet on Tuesday.

Efforts by Netanyahu to travel to Ottawa on the way back home and meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who just won a resounding victory in the recent Canadian elections and is considered one of Israel's best friends in the world, fell through because of “logistical reasons,” government sources said.

In a related development, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is to head the US delegation holding the annual strategic dialogue with Israel in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon will head the Israeli delegation in the discussions.

Steinberg, accompanied by Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday in Ramallah and discussed the diplomatic process and the changes in the region.

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.


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