- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister delivers a highly anticipated policy speech Sunday in which he could use the re-election of Iran’s hard-line president to boost his argument that Tehran poses a bigger threat to Mideast peace than his refusal to endorse Palestinian statehood.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing that argument as he publicly defies President Barack Obama’s appeals to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and start negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state.

The re-election Friday of hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the street protests by opponents who think the vote was rigged will make the international audience more receptive to Netanyahu’s position on Iran, said Iran expert David Menashri.

“For Netanyahu, it could not be better. The world will be in a better position to accept Netanyahu’s position on Iran after having seen the pictures coming out of Iran in recent days,” said Menashri, who heads the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Ahmadinejad is reviled in Israel for repeatedly saying the country should be “wiped off the map” and for his defiance of international demands to curb its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad “represents the face of Iran as Israel tries to portray it,” Menashri said.

Israel, like the U.S., doesn’t believe Tehran’s claims that its nuclear program is designed to produce energy, not bombs. Netanyahu has said Israel would not tolerate a nuclear Iran and is thought to be mulling a military strike.

A poll for an Israeli think tank published Sunday showed that 59 percent of the Jewish public would support a military strike should Israel determine that Tehran possesses nuclear weapons. But less than one-fifth said they would consider leaving Israel should Iran develop nuclear weapons, said the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The survey questioned 616 adult Jews and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

But while Netanyahu sees Iran and its anti-Israel proxies in Lebanon and Gaza as the crux of the Mideast’s problems, Obama thinks serious effort toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could weaken Tehran.

The Israeli leader has been under intense pressure from Washington to enter into negotiations on Palestinian statehood and end all settlement expansion in the West Bank — positions he opposes and whose adoption would almost surely fracture his hawkish governing coalition.

Netanyahu had tried to parry that pressure by attempting to redirect attention away from peacemaking with the Palestinians and toward Iran’s nuclear program.

But the U.S. was not won over to that point of view, and in his June 4 address to the Muslim world, Obama forcefully called for a Palestinian state and a halt to the settlement construction that has proven to be a major impediment to peacemaking.

Netanyahu’s speech, which is scheduled for 1700 GMT (1 p.m. EDT), is being seen as a rebuttal to Obama’s address.

Obama’s positions have riled many in Israel’s hawkish camp. Overnight, posters of him wearing a Palestinian headdress appeared in parts of Israel, bearing the words, “Barak (sic) Hussein Obama. Anti-Semitic Jew-hater.”

Before the speech, some Netanyahu aides said they did not expect the Israeli leader to explicitly endorse Palestinian statehood. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the Israeli leader has been keeping silent about the speech’s contents.

Some Cabinet ministers, however, have predicted he would explicitly agree to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu told ministers at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting that his speech would be “clear,” but Defense Minister Ehud Barak told fellow Labor Party ministers earlier that he expected Netanyahu’s speech to be vague and advised them to lower expectations, ministers said.

Political commentators have speculated that Netanyahu might attempt to placate Washington — the Jewish state’s top ally — by grudgingly reaffirming Israel’s commitment to the U.S.-backed “road map,” a blueprint for Palestinian statehood that Israel and the Palestinians approved in 2003. He also is expected to restate his call to resume negotiations immediately.

West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who spent more than a year negotiating with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, has said he would not resume peace talks with Israel unless it stops expanding settlements and agrees to negotiate Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu’s speech dominated Israeli newspapers and airwaves, with expectations high ahead of his appearance before a crowd of allies at Bar-Ilan University, the academic bastion of Israel’s right wing.

“The test of his life,” the Maariv newspaper trumpeted on its front page.

Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip dismissed Netanyahu’s speech before he gave it.

“Netanyahu will try in his speech to mislead international public opinion,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Hamas government. “Anyone who thinks that his extremist right-wing government is going to propose anything to the Palestinians is mistaken.”

Early Sunday, Israeli aircraft attacked tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border used by Gaza militants to smuggle weapons and other contraband into their blockaded territory. The military said the attacks were in retaliation for militant rocket fire on southern Israel on Saturday.

Also Sunday, former President Jimmy Carter, 85, met with West Bank settlers in what he described as a chance to “listen” and make his views known.

Carter, who brokered the historic peace deal between Israel and Egypt in 1979, antagonized many Israelis with his 2007 book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” in which he argued that Israel must choose between ceding the West Bank to the Palestinians or maintaining a system of ethnic inequality similar to that of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Carter met with settler leader Shaul Goldstein and others at the pastoral settlement of Neve Daniel, south of Jerusalem.

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