Obama, Netanyahu look to mend fractured relationship

2015-11-09 08:18
Benjamin Netanyahu. (File: AFP)

Benjamin Netanyahu. (File: AFP)

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Washington - President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek to mend their fractured relationship when they meet at the White House Monday, the first time they have talked face to face in more than a year.

Tensions over the US-backed nuclear deal with Iran continue to strain ties between the long-time allies. But there's also little hope of progress on other matters, with US officials downplaying the chance of a breakthrough in ongoing security talks and ruling out the prospect of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians before Obama leaves office in 14 months.

"The president has reached that conclusion that right now — baring a major shift — that the parties are not going to be in a position to negotiate a final status agreement," White House Middle East adviser Rob Malley said ahead of Netanyahu's arrival in Washington.

Monday's meeting will also be clouded by the controversy following Netanyahu's appointment of a new spokesman who has spoken derisively about Obama. Ran Baratz, a conservative commentator, has suggested in Facebook posts that Obama is anti-Semitic and Secretary of State John Kerry cannot be taken seriously.

Threats and challenges

Even with the low expectations, the fact that Obama and Netanyahu are meeting at all is seen as an important step. While the two leaders have long had a chilly relationship, tensions boiled over earlier this year amid Obama's pursuit of the Iranian nuclear deal.

Netanyahu views Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and argued that the international agreement struck earlier this year leaves Tehran within reach of a bomb. The Israeli leader unsuccessfully lobbied US lawmakers to oppose the deal, even delivering a rare speech to Congress that infuriated the White House.

Obama didn't meet the prime minister when he travelled to Washington to address lawmakers, citing the proximity to Israeli elections that resulted in Netanyahu staying in power. The leaders also did not meet while Netanyahu was in the US in September to speak to the United Nations General Assembly.

Officials in both governments have been discussing a new security agreement that could result in increased US military assistance to Israel. US officials said that, while they did not expect Monday's talks to result in a final agreement, it was significant that the leaders planned to discuss the matter given that Netanyahu had refused to do so in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear agreement.

"We do believe it's very important that in an uncertain security environment, we are signalling our long-term commitment to Israel and its security, and are designing a package that is tailored to the threats and challenges that Israel will be facing over the course of the next decade," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.

New wave of violence

US officials say Obama will also express his commitment to a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians, even as the White House acknowledges that elusive breakthrough won't occur before Obama leaves office in January 2017.

While Obama's predecessors have also been unable to bring the two parties together, the frankness of the White House's admission was still striking.

Officials said Obama would instead press Netanyahu on what could be done to avoid confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in the absence of a peace deal. A new wave of violence broke out about two months ago, beginning with unrest at a major Jerusalem shrine revered by both Muslims and Jews, and quickly spreading to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza border.

Netanyahu said he would discuss "possible progress with the Palestinians, or at least stabilising the situation with them."

Israel has accused Palestinian political and religious leaders of inciting the violence. Palestinians say the violence is due to a lack of hope for gaining independence after years of failed peace efforts.

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