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Page last updated at 23:31 GMT, Tuesday, 28 April 2009 00:31 UK

Is Israel heading for clash with US?

Arab man looks over Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim
Jewish settlements in the West Bank may be one of the issues Israel and the US disagree over

By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem

It is Israel's Independence Day - traditionally time for leading Israeli politicians to give big interviews about their country's past and future.

Israel's new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has remained conspicuously tight-lipped.

Israeli voters went to the polls in February.

Mr Netanyahu knows their number one priority is personal and national security.

This would have been an ideal moment for him to set the scene as regards foreign policy, but it looks like Israelis - and the impatiently expectant international community - will have to wait a little while longer.

In a region where sparks can fly and wars can start without too much warning, Mr Netanyahu's spokesmen have announced the world view of this new Israeli government will only be revealed around 18 May.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu
Mr Netanyahu is likely to reveal more about his policy in Washington

This is when Mr Netanyahu is scheduled to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington.

In the meantime, the Israeli leader's defence and foreign ministers have dropped some heavy hints (though, not unusually for tumultuous Israeli government politics, the declarations were not always harmonious).

They, as well as Washington's statements and comments made by Arab leaders, are being closely monitored.

Israelis and Middle East-watchers are keen to know if there will be an ugly clash at the White House next month.

In the end, it is unlikely, but the players' stated positions make it perfectly possible.

Mr Netanyahu has a track record of difficult relations with his country's closest ally, dating back to his previous term as Israel's premier back in the late 1990s.

Complex reality

Clearly, a key issue is Palestinian statehood.

Mr Netanyahu and his foreign minister have preferred to remain vague on the issue.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman claims boosting the Palestinian economy is more of a priority.

We can't talk forever... at some point steps have to be taken so that people can see progress on the ground
US President Barack Obama

He insists that the international community drop phrases like "land-for-peace" or "two-state solution".

He says they oversimplify a complex reality.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview published on Tuesday that he believed peace could be achieved within three years.

Mr Lieberman has promised "new approaches, new ideas, new visions".

It is questionable whether that will be good enough for Barack Obama.

Since taking office, he and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have gone out of their way to insist a two state solution is the only solution to the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They also appear keen to push for wider regional peace.

'New war?'

This month Jordan's King Abdullah became the first Middle East leader to be received in Washington by President Barack Obama.

He urged Israel's acceptance of what has become known as the Arab peace initiative, where Israel would achieve diplomatic recognition in the Arab world in exchange for pulling back to its pre-1967 borders, allowing for the formation of a viable Palestinian state.

Jordan's King Abdullah and US President Barack Obama at the White House
King Abdullah was the first Middle East leader to visit President Obama

King Abdullah said it was imperative the US take a forceful role in resolving Israeli-Palestinian relations.

If no progress was made, he warned, the region was facing a new war.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said King Abdullah spoke on behalf of the wider Arab world.

President Obama seemed sympathetic to the message.

He said: "We can't talk forever... at some point steps have to be taken so that people can see progress on the ground. And that will be something that we will expect to take place in the coming months."

But how far is he willing to push Israel? US administrations are famously reluctant to come to diplomatic blows with the country some describe as America's 51st state.

'Biggest obstacle'

It could all come down to Iran.

While in opposition, Mr Netanyahu repeatedly said Iran was the biggest threat to Israel's existence.

He is very likely to deliver this message and ask for assurances during his visit to Washington.

President Obama may press for progress on the Palestinian issue in return.


It's impossible to combat any problem in our region without resolving the Iranian problem

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman

Speaking in Washington on Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "For Israel to get the strong support it is looking for vis-a-vis Iran, it can't stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and peace efforts. They go hand-in-hand."

International diplomats have speculated that Sunni Arab governments which fear Iran feel they need clear steps forward towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in order for their nations to accept Arab backing of US-Israeli moves against a fellow Muslim nation.

Publicly the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations insist the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core Middle East issue.

Until that is resolved there can be no regional peace.

But Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, insists what he describes as "the Iranian problem" must be resolved before anything else.

"The biggest obstacle to a comprehensive solution is not Israel. It's not the Palestinians. It's the Iranians."

"It's impossible to combat any problem in our region without resolving the Iranian problem.

"This relates to Lebanon, to influence in Syria, their deep involvement with Egypt, in the Gaza Strip, in Iraq.

"If the international community wants to resolve its Middle East problems, it's impossible because the biggest obstacle to this solution is the Iranians."

Tough position

Mr Lieberman recently told Barak Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, that 15 years of peace talks with Palestinians had "brought neither results nor solutions".

To obtain true regional stability, the US should focus instead on preventing Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, he said.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas  (April 2009)
Mr Abbas is hoping the US will push Israel towards a two-state solution

Mr Netanyahu has often said he believes it better to take a tough position at the outset of negotiations in order to have bargaining possibilities.

The most likely scenario is that he and President Obama will do their best to find common ground during their talks in Washington.

Israel's foreign and defence ministers have clearly quashed domestic and international speculation that the Netanyahu government, dismayed at the Obama administration's efforts to engage Iran, favoured going it alone against Iran with their own military strike.

Both men say they are open to normalising relations with Syria (something Mr Obama favours strongly, though Mr Lieberman says is unlikely because at the moment, he says, there is nothing to talk about).

Both men say they favour advancing stalled talks with the Palestinian Authority.

There is room for discussion, but Palestinians in particular are hoping Mr Obama will not just talk but act tough on the issue of expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Here, Mr Netanyahu has been clear: he sees no reason to stop the building.

Mr Abbas has been equally clear - he will not sit down with the Israelis until all settlement growth is frozen.

President Obama has also invited him to the White House next month.



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