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Middle East

Obama, Netanyahu prepare for tough talks

US President Barack Obama and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Monday (03.03.2014) to discuss Iran and the Middle East. Their positions have hardened, but movement on Israel's settlement policy seems possible.

US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not what you'd call a dream team. Their personal relationship is difficult, as are the issues they're confronting. In particular, nuclear negotiations with Iran have led to increased tensions in recent months between the US and Israel.

"Obama and Netanyahu are divided not only on policy but in terms of world outlooks, and even their personalities," said Jim Phillips, an expert on the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington. For Netanyahu, Israel's security has absolute priority. But Obama has in the past expressed an understanding for the country's opponents, which has not only irritated Israel but also countries such as Saudi Arabia. "But in the long run, the US-Israeli relations are on a solid basis," said Phillips.

Political observers expect two main topics to be up for discussion at Monday's talks in Washington. The controversial negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program will certainly remain high on the agenda, but the leaders will also address the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Immediate action is needed on the second matter. When he restarted peace talks in July, US Secretary of State John Kerry set a deadline for the end of April for both sides to reach a peace agreement. Since the resumption of the talks, Kerry has visited the region almost a dozen times and has yet to make any decisive progress and admitted that peace deal is not feasible though he does want a "framework" agreed to. The bone of contention remains Israel's controversial settlement projects.

A 'freeze' on settlements

In the coming weeks, Kerry plans to present a long-awaited outline for the negotiations. "It's going to require additional security risks for Israel, eventually relinquishing territory in return for Palestinian promises of peace, which is unclear if the Palestinian Authority will be able to deliver, given Hamas' control over Gaza and the rise of extremist Islamist militants in Gaza and the Sinai," said Phillips.

An Israeli settlement
Photo: UPI/Debbie Hill /LANDOV

Israel has so far refused to put a freeze on settlements

"If the Israelis and the Palestinians reject the American framework, we may see a real crisis on that front," said Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "If both sides more or less agree, we may see big changes at least on the domestic politics and the diplomatic positions of both sides moving forward."

Sachs and other experts expect Obama will push Netanyahu to accept Kerry's plan. In particular, they believe Obama will pressure the prime minister for a "de facto freeze" on settlement building, as recently reported in Israeli and American media. link:17456911:Similar to German Chancellor Angela Merkel#, the Americans don't want to resort to sanctions to persuade Israel to back down.

Doubts about nuclear talks

Phillips said the leaders' conflicting positions are again apparent when the subject switches to the nuclear talks with Iran. "I think that they will essentially agree that they disagree," he said.

In December, Obama made it clear at an event at the Brookings Institution that he thinks Netanyahu's ultimate demand, a complete destruction of Iran's nuclear capabilities, is unrealistic. In an ideal world, he said, one could imagine Iran saying it would destroy all its fuel and facilities, which would ease the situation, but is not currently in the realm of possibility.

"It seems very clear that Iran is trying to become a threshold state, a state that is capable of building nuclear weapons whether or not they decide to do so," said Sachs. "This is something the Americans ostensibly could live with, but the Israelis have declared that they cannot."

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Photo: SAJAD SAFARI/AFP/Getty Images

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saw little hope for the success of nuclear talks with the West

There have been increasing doubts about the prospects of the nuclear talks after Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently said he saw little chance of success. "I'm not optimistic about the talks," he said before the last round of negotiations in mid-February. "They are going nowhere."

Phillips said a number of substantial problems threaten the success of the talks. This could also have an impact on the direction of the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. "The discussions could revolve around what happens when diplomacy fails," he said. "This would result in less tension than would a bad agreement."

No sides on Syria

There will likely be less disagreement between the two leaders when talk turns to the Syrian civil war and the peace negotiations held in Geneva. Israel has not officially taken any side in the Syrian conflict, neither for the Assad regime nor for his opponents.

"There is absolutely no love between the Assad regime and Israel, but there is a great deal of fear in Israel from the alternative to the Assad regime, namely very radical Sunni organizations," said Sachs.

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