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(photo credit: AP)
The main thrust of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's comments during his long-awaited meeting with US President Barack Obama on Monday will concern Iran, because of Teheran's consistent progress toward developing nuclear arms, Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's national security adviser, said Sunday.
"The way things are planned, the focus of Netanyahu's words will be the Iranian nuclear issue," Arad said.
"This is clear not only because this is an existential issue as far as the security of Israel is concerned, but because Iran is progressing all the time toward nuclear military capability."
Netanyahu landed in Washington early Sunday morning and held preparatory talks throughout the day for his first meeting as prime minister with Obama at the White House.
The meeting is scheduled to begin 10:30 a.m. local time and last for 90 minutes. It will be followed by a short press conference and a luncheon meeting.
Arad sounded buoyed by comments on Iran that Obama made to Newsweek in an interview published on the magazine's Web site.
Asked what he would discuss with Netanyahu regarding possible military action against Iran, Obama said, "I've been very clear that I don't take any options off the table with respect to Iran. I don't take options off the table when it comes to US security, period. What I have said is that we want to offer Iran an opportunity to align itself with international norms and international rules. I think, ultimately, that will be better for the Iranian people."
Obama said he was not naive about the prospects of success for this policy.
"If it doesn't work," he told the magazine, "the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community, and Iran will have isolated itself, as opposed to a perception that it seeks to advance that somehow it's being victimized by a US government that doesn't respect Iran's sovereignty."
As to whether he expected Israel, as a US ally, not to take military action, Obama said: "No, look, I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They're right there in range and I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are."
However, he added, "I can make an argument to Israel as an ally that the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to some of the other alternatives."
Arad called these words worthy of "appreciation."
Regarding Israel's position on Iran, Arad said that an op-ed piece in Sunday's New York Times by Jeffrey Goldberg "reflects very well the approach of Netanyahu."
In that piece, Goldberg wrote that "Mr. Netanyahu says he supports Mr. Obama's plan to engage the Iranians. He also supports the tightening of sanctions on the regime, if engagement doesn't work. But there should be little doubt that by the end of this year, if no progress is made, Mr. Netanyahu will seriously consider attacking Iran."
According to the Goldberg piece, Netanyahu's military advisers believe that an attack on Iran, even if conducted without US help or permission, "would have a reasonably high chance of setting back the Iranian program two to five years."
Arad said it was clear that both the US and Israel shared the same goal of wanting to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capability, and that he expected a "detailed discussion" about the most effective ways to achieve that goal.
He also said that the US understood the high priority the issue holds for Netanyahu.
In recent weeks, however, the Obama administration has sent out clear signals that while it understands Israel's preoccupation with Iran, this cannot come at the expense of progress on the Palestinian track.
Regarding that track, Arad said the issue would clearly be addressed by both leaders and that "there might be some differences in approach."
Arad, who has been involved in intense preparatory talks with the Americans for weeks, seemed to hint that Netanyahu was not going to publicly come out and endorse a two-state solution.
"We are comfortable that a sense of pragmatism, and a desire for progress, will drive the discussions, and that what will decide the issues are the practicalities of the matter and not the rhetoric," he said.
Both Israeli and US officials have said in recent days that Netanyahu and Obama will come to an agreement on a general formula that could be interpreted as an Israeli endorsement of a two-state solution down the road.
Asked under what conditions Netanyahu would agree to negotiate toward a Palestinian state, Arad said there were "many hurdles" on the road to Palestinians and Israelis living side by side.
"One has to discuss those issues," he said. "To give you just one example of something that in real terms is much more immediate, what are we to do with Gaza?"
Arad said the presence of a "huge terrorist infrastructure" that was established there "precisely at the time that Israel evacuated Gaza" is "a practical issue, and this is where we have to knock heads together."
In addition to meeting Obama, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday evening. On Tuesday he is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as well as congressional leaders and Jewish legislators.
Netanyahu has been extremely careful about making public statements before his meeting with Obama, not even - as is the norm - providing an airborne briefing to reporters who traveled with him to Washington Saturday night.
In addition to dealing with Iran and the Palestinian track, the issue of the Arab peace initiative is expected to arise in Monday's talks.
President Shimon Peres, speaking Sunday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Jordan, said it was important to advance the Arab peace initiative, echoing what he said earlier this month at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington.
"The Saudis gave birth to a peace initiative," he said at that event, adding that this marked "a serious U-turn" from previous Arab rejectionism.
He said that since Israel wasn't a partner to the wording of the initiative, "it doesn't have to agree to every word."
He said that Israel "respects the profound change. Israel hopes it will be translated into action, the sooner the better."
Government sources said that this seemed to reflect Netanyahu's view as well, that in contrast to the Arab world's famous three no's from the past - no to negotiation, peace or recognition - the peace initiative was a "move forward."
At the same time, the source said, it was obvious that Israel had "problems" with some elements of the initiative, "and while we welcome the call for peace and reconciliation, the details should be resolved in direct negotiations with our Arab neighbors."