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Agendas clash as Netanyahu, Obama meet

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TEL AVIV | On the eve of the first summit between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is worried about clashing with its top ally over strategy toward Arab-Israeli peace and preventing Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

The first meeting between the two recently elected heads of state may be a defining moment for the Obama administration's effort to reshape policy in the region. The new administration has indicated that it wants progress on both Iran and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, suggesting that the issues are linked.

Israel is worried that could mean the White House is making progress on peace talks a precondition for stopping Iran, which Israel has warned could go nuclear in the next year. Mr. Netanyahu, unlike his predecessors, has so far declined to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested Friday that Mr. Netanyahu might be ready to endorse a Palestinian state when he meets Mr. Obama on Monday.

"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," the Associated Press quoted Mr. Barak as telling Channel 2 TV on Saturday.

But politicians and advisers close to Mr. Netanyahu were more skeptical of that prospect.

"The Palestinian-Israel issue has been going on for 100 years, and it will come to some conclusion, but it doesn't have to be presented in the next six months," said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and adviser to Mr. Netanyahu.

Israeli officials, however, have sought to make the opposite linkage. Aides to Mr. Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have argued that until Iran's spreading power in the region is contained, any new Israeli territorial concessions to the Palestinians would open up a vacuum to be filled by Iran and its supporters such as Hamas, which already governs the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Netanyahu's "linkage is, 'I won't do anything on Arab-Israeli peace until the Iranian issue is clarified,' " said Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations. The U.S. position is " 'You've got to give us something, otherwise, we're not going to do anything on Iran.' This is self-destructive."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said Mr. Netanyahu worries that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, he "can't afford to make any territorial concessions, because wherever the Arabs agree to, if Iran gets nuclear weapons they will all scurry under Iran's umbrella, and it will put Iran on all [of Israel's] borders."

The White House said Saturday it sees the two issues moving on parallel tracks.

"This isn't a question of one or the other," said a senior White House official during a conference call with reporters conducted on the condition that the official and others participating not be named. "These are two very important issues. The peace initiative ... and the challenge of Iran; there are connections between them simply because it's a region in which things aren't dealt with in isolation from one another."

Iran has sought to exploit the Arab-Israeli dispute to boost its regional posture and undercut pro-U.S. Arab leaders.

The Netanyahu-Obama meeting follows heightened speculation about potential friction between Mr. Obama and the right-of-center Israeli leader. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported last week that the U.S. dispatched an envoy to Israel recently to clarify Washington's opposition to Israel attacking Iran's nuclear sites.

Despite the differences, diplomats preparing the meeting said both sides would do their utmost to demonstrate a business-as-usual rapport at least in public.

"No one is going to discover a problem," said one locally based Western diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issues. "It's not going to be what all the Cassandras are projecting might happen."

"I know there's an expectation out there that we're headed toward a train wreck between Obama and Netanyahu, and that's just not going to be the case," said Howard Kohr, executive director of the lobbying group American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. "Everything we're hearing about this visit indicates that both sides want to have a good visit."

Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu will begin their meeting late in the morning and then share lunch. The talks will be among the most closely watched foreign-policy events Mr. Obama has participated in since taking office nearly four months ago.

The White House has cast the meeting as part of a larger effort by Mr. Obama to bring about Middle East peace. The president is scheduled to host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 26 and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 28. On June 4, Mr. Obama will deliver a major address to the Muslim world from Egypt.

Both the U.S. and Israeli administrations have been overhauling their peacemaking policies.

Israeli officials say that Palestinians first need to develop their economy, reform their government and resolve the rift between the leaderships of the West Bank and Gaza before Israel and the Palestinians can conclude a peace deal that resolves thorny questions over Jerusalem, borders and refugees.

That stance is raising concern that the time horizon for peace in Israel is significantly longer than what is envisioned by the U.S.

"Netanyahu will assert that the Palestinian house is divided and their leadership is weak and no 'top-down' progress can be made," wrote Gershon Baskin, head of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information, in an article distributed by his organization. "Look at [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert - he really wanted to reach an agreement and couldn't."

Indeed, Israel appears to have taken a step back from talks. Mr. Netanyahu has added a precondition that the Palestinians need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before negotiations can continue.

Meanwhile, Arab countries are lobbying for a 2002 peace initiative endorsed by the Arab League that would offer Israel full normalization of ties in return for a complete withdrawal from the territory captured in the 1967 war.

Jordan's King Abdullah II recently began pushing an even more grandiose "57-state solution" in which all Muslim countries would agree to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

"We have committed. So, now, must Israel," the king said Friday to a gathering of international business and political leaders meeting on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea.

The initiative "has offered Israel a place in the neighborhood and more: acceptance by 57 nations, the one-third of the U.N. members that do not recognize Israel," Abdullah said. "This is true security - security that barriers and armed forces cannot bring."

Israel has historically preferred separate peace negotiations to comprehensive solutions suggested by the Arabs.

Mr. Obama may have considerable leverage over Mr. Netanyahu. Recent polls suggest widespread support among Israelis for a Palestinian state, and a Friday poll in the Ha'aretz newspaper showed that 52 percent already disapprove of Mr. Netanyahu's performance. Even among supporters of Mr. Netanyahu's own Likud Party, 40 percent said he should agree to a two-state solution and not invite friction with Israel's most important ally.

• Jon Ward reported from Washington and Dale Gavlak contributed to this article from southern Shuneh, Jordan.

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