At odds with Obama, Netanyahu begins U.S. visit

By Jeffrey Heller

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to focus his first White House talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on ways to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, a Netanyahu adviser said on Sunday.

At odds with Obama over Palestinian statehood, an objective of Middle East peacemaking the United States has championed and Netanyahu has balked at endorsing, the Israeli leader began his first visit to Washington since taking office two months ago.

On the eve of Netanyahu's meeting Monday with Obama, the prime minister's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, said, "As things are planned, Mr. Netanyahu will focus on the subject of a nuclear Iran."

"That is clear, not only because it is (an) existential (threat) as far as Israel's security is concerned, but because Iran is constantly making progress towards nuclear military capability," he told reporters.

"It's a joint objective for both (Israel and the United States). Preventing Iran from obtaining this capability will be the centre of the talks."

In a Newsweek magazine interview, Obama, who has been seeking to engage Iran on a series of issues from its nuclear program to Afghanistan, said he hoped to persuade Netanyahu that the U.S. approach was best.

"I can make an argument to Israel as an ally that the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to other alternatives," Obama said.

Earlier this month, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that world powers should take action against Iran if it did not curb its nuclear activities by August.

Israeli leaders have not ruled out military strikes in Iran, which says it is enriching uranium for power generation, if diplomacy fails.


Commenting on differences with Obama over a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arad said Israel was confident a "sense of pragmatism and the desire for progress will drive the discussion."

Asked whether Netanyahu would utter the phrase "two states for two peoples" at the White House, Arad did not answer and walked away, ending his news briefing.

Earlier, playing down prospects for a confrontational meeting, an Obama aide said about the statehood issue, "The president does not believe it's going in a bad direction."

U.S. officials said Obama would push that principle in his talks with Netanyahu aimed at reviving the stalled peace process.

With Hamas Islamists in charge of the Gaza Strip and little progress made in now-frozen statehood negotiations that resumed late in George W. Bush's presidency, Netanyahu has said talks should focus instead on economic, security and political issues.

Palestinians reject that approach, saying they will not negotiate with Netanyahu's right-leaning government until he commits to a two-state solution to the conflict and halts expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Obama sees Israeli-Palestinian progress as crucial to repairing the U.S. image in the Muslim world and to convincing moderate Arab states to join a united front against Iran.

Israeli officials say, in turn, that Arab concern over Iran could prod Muslim states to seek a regional peace agreement with Israel.

Netanyahu will spend three days in Washington. He plans extensive meetings on Tuesday in Congress, where support for Israel traditionally has been strong.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Article Published: 17/05/2009