Washington — Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to resist “pressures” as he arrived in Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama on the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.
When the two meet at the White House on Monday, their discussion will be crucial to determine whether Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians have a future beyond April 29, with US efforts focused on getting both sides to agree a framework for extending the talks.
But the rapidly-developing crisis in the Ukraine looked set to overshadow the visit, as Washington was mired in a tense showdown with Moscow after it dispatched troops to the region, in a development that pundits said could change the dynamics of Netanyahu’s visit.
Speaking to reporters on the tarmac just before taking off for Washington, Netanyahu said he would discuss Iran and the peace process with Obama.
“I will insist on Israel’s vital interests, first and foremost the security of its citizens. In recent years, the state of Israel has subjected to various pressures — we have rejected them. This is how it has been, and this is how it will be,” he said.
Although Netanyahu would like his meeting with Obama to deal predominantly with Iran, the White House has other ideas.
Last week, a senior official told The New York Times that Obama would press Netanyahu to “agree to a framework for a conclusive round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations,” being drafted by Secretary of State John Kerry.
When direct talks began in July 2013, the US diplomat had laid out a nine-month timetable to reach an agreement.
But there has been little progress and the aim now is to get the negotiators to agree on a framework for negotiating the core issues of the conflict, which would extend the deadline until the year’s end.
The proposal, or its outline, is likely to be discussed in Netanyahu’s morning meeting with Kerry and also when he meets Obama. A Palestinian delegation is also in Washington for talks on the framework.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kerry acknowledged the Israeli leader had made “tough decisions,” and that the same was required of the Palestinians. “The Palestinians need to decide whether or not they’re prepared to compromise,” he said.
– ‘Aggressive settlement construction’ –
Ahead of the meeting, Obama said that without a peace agreement, Israeli settlements would create a backlash from which even Washington could not protect its ally.
“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we?ve seen in a very long time — if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” he told Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Washington will demand a partial freeze on construction in isolated settlements outside the major West Bank blocs that Israel hopes to retain in any peace deal.
Although Kerry appears to have found a formula broadly acceptable to Netanyahu, the Palestinians have denounced his ideas as unacceptable and have refused any extension of the talks.
But Washington is working intensively to have the sides agree the framework before the end of March, when Israel is due to release a fourth and final batch of 26 veteran Palestinian security prisoners.
– Ukraine looms large –
Yet the Ukraine crisis may force a change of tack for Netanyahu, who is due to meet with congressional leaders and speak at the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC on Tuesday.
It could also complicate things for Netanyahu’s efforts to rally US public opinion on the issue of Iran amid rising tensions between old Cold War foes Russia and the United States.
Ahead of Netanyahu’s address, US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told AIPAC it was “critically important” to give the negotiations with Iran a chance to succeed and keep the threat of force “as a last option.”
Netanyahu has said a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel and has refused to rule out a pre-emptive military strike.
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