WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank during their first White House meeting Monday, U.S. officials said, potentially setting up a confrontation between the American president and a close U.S. ally.
While it isn't known how hard Obama will press the point or the precise outlines of his request, but by raising the settlements issue now, he's wading into one of the most sensitive areas of U.S.-Israeli relations — one that's confounded many of his predecessors.
The American thinking is that Obama's drive for an Arab-Israeli peace agreement will never get off the ground, given the sour atmosphere in the region, without confidence-building measures by both sides.
In return for a freeze on settlements in areas claimed by the Palestinians for an eventual state, Israel would be offered steps toward acceptance by the Arab states, as promised in a recently revived 2002 Arab peace initiative.
On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he thought Netanyahu was prepared to shift in Obama's direction.
"I think and believe that Netanyahu will tell Obama this government is prepared to go for a political process that will result in two peoples living side by side in peace and mutual respect," Barak told Israel's Chanel 2 TV.
Barak did not use the word "state," however, which leaves Netanyahu many options.
Administration officials agreed to discuss Obama's approach only on the condition of anonymity, because they weren't authorized to speak for the record in advance of Monday's talks.
However, Vice President Joe Biden hinted at the administration's early focus on the West Bank settlements in a May 5 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful Jewish-American lobby group.
After reiterating the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, Biden went on: "But Israel has to work toward a two-state solution. You're not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement . . ."
That approach appears to be a long shot at best.
No Israeli government, even those dominated by left-leaning parties, has ever agreed to the complete freeze on settlement growth called for as a first step in the U.S.-backed Road Map for Middle East peace.
And Netanyahu aides said the prime minister isn't going to go farther on settlements than his predecessors, including the last prime minister, Ehud Olmert.
"If you build inside an existing community, you are not prejudging in any way what happens in final status agreement," said one senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Netanyahu's agenda. "It's not a radical departure from the policies of the Olmert government."
Netanyahu aides and advisors also indicated that the prime minister won't accede to widespread international pressure to explicitly accept the creation of a Palestinian state as a cornerstone to regional peace.
"Netanyahu will not come out with a statement that he supports a two-state solution," said Zalman Shoval, a veteran Israeli diplomat who's helped the new government formulate its foreign policy.
Shoval, who twice served as Israel's ambassador to the United States, said Netanyahu won't agree in principle to the creation of a Palestinian state until Israel receives assurances that the new nation won't threaten Israel's security.
Instead, Netanyahu is expected to echo his predecessors by pledging to dismantle dozens of smaller illegal settlements and remove military roadblocks in the West Bank that have constricted development of the Palestinian economy.
That's likely to frustrate Obama administration officials, who've been publicly pressuring the new Israeli government to embrace a two-state solution that Israel endorsed by agreeing to the Road Map.
Israel's refusal to do so will also make it harder for Arab states, even moderate ones, to make concessions, according to Arab and U.S. diplomats.
These days, Israel's attention is elsewhere. Iran, whose leaders have threatened Israel's existence and which is thought to be gaining ground in its suspected nuclear weapons program, is the focus.
"Iran is No. 1 on our agenda," said an Israeli official.
Israeli leaders are skeptical about the Obama administration's diplomatic overtures to Iran and want to see the United States impose a short timeline on talks.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is pushing for a three-month timeline on talks.
"There should be a limited timeline without any doubt and I'm sure it's going to come up," Shoval agreed. "If not three months, maybe four or five months."
There's been widespread speculation — not least, in the Israeli media — that a major clash Obama and Netanyahu is almost inevitable in the weeks and months ahead.
The two are likely to keep any rift well out of the public eye, however.
Netanyahu's previous stint as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, was marked by clashes with then-President Bill Clinton, which contributed to his electoral defeat.
"Israeli leaders know that the Israeli electorate punishes leaders who are responsible for a breakdown" in U.S.-Israeli relations, said Shai Feldman, the director of Middle East studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
"Israel is not Venezuela — there are no brownie points for defying the United States," Feldman said at a forum sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center, a research organization in Washington.
Obama promised days after taking office that he would "actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace" between Israel and the Palestinians.
Although his special envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, has made several trips to the Middle East, Obama has yet to lay out in detail how he plans to achieve a goal that's eluded American presidents for decades.
That appears likely to change as Obama meets with Netanyahu, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 26, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas two days later. He then travels to Egypt in early June to deliver what's been billed as a major speech on U.S.-Muslim relations.
Netanyahu leads one of the most right-leaning Israeli governments in recent memory. Lieberman, the ultranationalist foreign minister, lives in a West Bank settlement.
The controversial Lieberman won't accompany Netanyahu to Washington, Israeli officials said.
While saying he's ready to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has been cool to the idea of a quick political deal with the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank, but not the Gaza Strip.
Instead, Netanyahu says he wants to focus on improving economic conditions in the Palestinian areas — an approach Abbas has rejected insufficient.
While the outlook for progress appears dim, all sides — Israelis, Arabs and Americans — have one trait in common that might compel them toward a deal: fear over the growing influence of Iran.
Moderate Arab leaders such as Jordan's King Abdullah have beseeched Obama to make good on his promise to be a peace broker as a way to undercut the appeal of Tehran and its radical allies in Gaza and Lebanon.
(Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem and Strobel reported from Washington.)
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