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(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu landed in Washington on Sunday ahead of what is widely considered a critical first meeting with US President Barack Obama on Monday, that may go a long way toward setting the tone of US-Israel relations for years to come.
While Iran and the Palestinian track are expected to dominate the talks, diplomatic officials said that what was even more crucial to establish in this first meeting between the two new leaders was trust and confidence in one another.
The White House has cleared a considerable amount of Obama's Monday schedule for the talks, which will begin in the late morning, run through lunch and continue on into the afternoon.
Senior Obama administration officials said on Saturday that the pair had already established a good personal working relationship, but they also related to differences in the two leaders' outlooks.
Netanyahu has refused to specifically endorse the vision of a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His Likud ministerial colleague Yisrael Katz said on Saturday night that the prime minister would push for a joint American-Israeli partnership to launch a fresh "diplomatic initiative for the Middle East" in place of the Arab League initiative and previous negotiating tracks.
Katz also said Netanyahu would not be bound to the kind of "shelf" agreement on two states that former prime minister Ehud Olmert had sought to finalize with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Washington officials, by contrast, stressed on Saturday that Obama had been committed from day one of his presidency to pursuing comprehensive Middle East peace, which would include a secure Jewish state of Israel alongside an independent, viable Palestinian state.
Obama has also welcomed the Arab League initiative as constructive and indicated it could serve as a basis for progress.
Netanyahu's aides have spoken in recent days of the prime minister's support for "natural growth" in the West Bank settlements - another area of possible contention, with some reports suggesting Obama wants to see a settlement freeze.
The administration officials would not directly answer questions about Obama's stance on Saturday, beyond saying that all parties had responsibilities and obligations to give the US a chance to be successful. Israel, they said, had responsibilities on settlements and outposts, and the Palestinians had responsibilities on security and terrorism.
Tellingly, however, they referred reporters to US Vice President Joe Biden's address earlier this month to AIPAC's policy conference, at which he urged Israel "to work for a two-state solution... not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement."
Jordan's King Abdullah gave Netanyahu much the same message when the two met in Amman on Thursday.
The Washington officials also said Obama saw an opportunity to energize the Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon tracks, and that this would certainly be discussed on Monday.
They noted that senior Obama officials have already made two trips to Syria, and there have been talks, too, with Syria's ambassador in Washington - the first such contacts since 2005.
Netanyahu is expected to huddle with top advisers throughout the day in advance of his meeting with the president. He is scheduled to arrive back in Israel on Wednesday, before Jerusalem Day celebrations begin.
He was accompanied on the flight by Israel's new Ambassador to the US Michael Oren and US Ambassador James Cunningham.
In addition to meeting Obama, Netanyahu is also scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, National Security Adviser Gen. (ret.) James Jones, and congressional leaders from both parties.
He is also expected to meet with Jewish organization leaders, as well as select members of the US media.
Obama's meeting with Netanyahu is just one of a series of meetings the US president will hold with key Mideast players before unveiling, probably some time in June, a US policy for the Middle East.
Obama will see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 26, and Abbas on May 28.
He is also scheduled to fly to Egypt in early June and give a long-awaited speech dealing with the US's relations with the Muslim world.
This process of dialogue, the Washington officials said on Saturday, would produce a determination by the president as to the best way to move forward.
Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, said that the prime minister was "looking forward to the meetings in Washington, and building a close and collaborative relationship with President Obama and his team."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said earlier this week that Obama was looking forward to "welcoming key partners in the effort to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East."
He said Obama would discuss ways with Netanyahu, Mubarak and Abbas to "strengthen and deepen our partnerships, as well as the steps all parties should take to help achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israel and the Arab states."
Gibbs's emphasis on a comprehensive approach was not coincidental, and reflected one of two pillars of the new administration's policy: a wider regional component, as well as a two-state solution.
Both US and Israeli officials have said in recent days that even though Netanyahu has not come out and backed a two-state solution, while administration officials are advocating for it constantly, it was expected that a formula could be found to bridge the gap between Obama's interest in seeing two full states, and Netanyahu's policy of a three-pronged approach to an agreement that would include political negotiations, enhanced economic development and security cooperation.
Sources close to Netanyahu have said the prime minister does not object to a Palestinians state somewhere down the line, as long as it does not include elements of statehood - such as the ability to muster an army or enter into treaties - that could eventually threaten Israel.
This position is widely seen as one that could be a starting point for negotiations with the Americans, and eventually with the Palestinians.
A Rafi Smith survey published on Ynet on Thursday, meanwhile, indicated that 58 percent of the country's Jews believe that "two states for two peoples" was the basis of any agreement with the Palestinians.
Thirty-seven percent of the respondents did not agree with the notion, and five percent did not know.
The poll showed a wide gap between religious and secular Jews on the issue, with 73% of the secular population in favor of the idea, while 70% of the national-religious and haredi population opposed.
There was also a wide difference depending on age groups, with 53% of the respondents under 30 being opposed to the idea, and 63% of those over 50 agreeing with it.
The telephone poll was conducted Monday and Tuesday among a representative sample of 500 respondents, and had a 4.5% margin of error.
Even more than the Palestinian issue and the two-state solution, the White House talks are expected to be dominated by Iran, with the leaders expected to sound each other out about the range of options that exist for stopping the Iranian nuclear program.
Diplomatic officials said that Netanyahu will look for clarity as to where Obama's policy of engagement is headed and how long the US president would be willing to speak to the Iranians without seeing any concrete results or moving to the "next step."
The "next step" itself is also expected to be discussed.
The Washington officials said the administration would certainly not talk for talking's sake with Iran, and said the president recognized the urgency of the issue as it related to American interests and Israeli and other friends' interests.
Obama's policy on Iran, they stressed, was formulated in the context of the US's unshakeable commitment to Israel's security, and the US was involved in a very intensive dialogue with Israel on the issues.
If the Iranians failed to utilize the opportunity provided by US engagement, said one, the US would be strengthened internationally and Iran would have succeeded in isolating itself.
While Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview that thwarting Iran's nuclear drive was crucial for any substantive progress with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu's aides have said much the same, the senior administration officials said on Saturday night that progress was needed on both.
The Middle East, said one, featured relationships where things were not dealt with in isolation from each other.
Beyond these issues, however, what was important for both sides was to create a relationship of trust, officials in the US and Israel have said over recent days.
Israeli officials said it was clear that Netanyahu learned from his first meeting as prime minister in 1996 with then-president Bill Clinton, a meeting which Dennis Ross, a key Mideast adviser for Clinton, said was not successful.
That meeting set the tone for Netanyahu-Clinton relations, which have been described as "rocky."
"In the meeting with President Clinton, Netanyahu was nearly insufferable, lecturing and telling us how to deal with the Arabs," Ross wrote in his book The Missing Peace.
"After Netanyahu was gone, President Clinton observed, 'He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.'"
Ross also wrote that at that time Netanyahu "wanted no advance preparation: he and no one else was going to set the agenda for his initial meeting with President Clinton."
Netanyahu has significantly altered that approach, with meetings between top US and Israeli officials having taken place for weeks, both in Jerusalem and Washington, in preparation for the meeting.
The atmosphere between Netanyahu and Obama, who have met - albeit in different roles - in the past, is also significantly different than it was in 1996 between Netanyahu and Clinton.
For one thing, Obama did not actively promote Netanyahu's rival, Tzipi Livni, before the elections here in February, as Clinton was widely perceived to have done for Netanyahu's rival, Shimon Peres, in the 1996 elections.
And, secondly, Netanyahu has no illusions, as he did in 1996, during the peak of Clinton's problems with a Republican-led Congress, that he can override the president on Capitol Hill.