- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

JERUSALEM (Agence France-Presse) | The deep differences exposed during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first meeting with President Obama on Tuesday have stoked fears in Israel of cooling ties with its main ally.

“Agreed to disagree,” was the headline in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot a day after the Washington talks laid bare the discord on Middle East peacemaking and Iran.

In the weeks preceding the two leaders’ first official meeting, Israeli newspapers had been filled with alarmist editorials that warned of a stark change of course in U.S. policy toward Israel under Mr. Obama.

After the Oval Office meeting, some warned that the change of tone in Washington boded ill for the special relationship that Israel has enjoyed with its main backer over the years.

“A new era has begun in relations between Israel and the United States,” said Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

An editorial in the popular Ynet Web site said: “The honeymoon that lasted for dozens of years has apparently reached an end, and now, only now, will the normal life of the American-Israeli couple get under way.”

“Bibi’s from Mars, Obama’s from Venus,” said another editorial in Ynet.

In comments after their meeting, which included a 90-minute one-on-one session, Mr. Obama repeatedly underlined Washington’s support for the creation of a Palestinian state and said Israeli settlement activities “have to be stopped.”

“There wasn’t a single blister that Obama didn’t step on,” wrote Israel’s second-largest daily, Ma’ariv.

Mr. Netanyahu again avoided committing to the two-state solution or pledging to stop settlement activity, which his largely right-wing Cabinet supports.

In contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, who was considered extremely sympathetic to Israel, Mr. Obama has vowed to pursue the peace process vigorously and has assembled a team experienced in the tricky task of peacemaking in the volatile region.

Mr. Obama’s background has also set him apart from his predecessors vis a vis Israel, analysts say. He has adopted a new approach that could mean a downgrading of sorts to the Jewish state’s privileged position in U.S. policy, analysts say.

“The new American president does not have a particular sentiment towards Israel,” Mr. Gilboa said.

“He is defending his interests and his global approach to the Middle East, which includes a rapprochement with the Arab world at the expense of privileged relations with Israel.

“If Netanyahu persists in his positions, there is a potential risk of confrontation that will translate into an enormous price for Israel,” he said.

Akiva Eldar, a veteran journalist with the liberal Ha’aretz daily, wrote: “I have never seen an official meeting in Washington that ended with so many differences being publicly expressed.”

Others dismiss the alarmist tone, however, saying that despite their differences the United States and Israel remain strategic allies.

“For Israel, the Obama era has nothing to do with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, but the historical American-Israeli ties, profound and numerous, cannot be put into question,” said Gerald Steinberg, also a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

“We have to wait for the speech that Obama will give on June 4 in Cairo on his regional peace approach, but he has agreed with Netanyahu to admit to their differences in order to iron them out, and there is no question of pressure on Israel.”

Obama is scheduled to present his regional policy in what has been billed as a major address to the Muslim world in the Egyptian capital on June 4.

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