WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama plans to ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank during their first White House meeting Monday, U.S. officials said, potentially setting up a confrontation between the American president and a close U.S. ally.
While it isn’t known how hard Obama will press the point or the precise outlines of his request, by raising the settlements issue now, he’s wading into one of the most sensitive areas of U.S.-Israeli relations – one that’s confounded many of his predecessors.
In return for a freeze on settlements in areas claimed by the Palestinians for an eventual state, Israel would be offered steps toward acceptance by the Arab states, as promised in a recently revived 2002 Arab peace initiative.
On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he thought Netanyahu was prepared to shift in Obama’s direction.
“I think and believe that Netanyahu will tell Obama this government is prepared to go for a political process that will result in two peoples living side by side in peace and mutual respect,” Barak told Israel’s Channel 2 TV.
Barak did not use the word “state,” however, which leaves Netanyahu many options.
No Israeli government, even those dominated by left-leaning parties, has ever agreed to the complete freeze on settlement growth called for as a first step in the U.S.-backed road map for Middle East peace.
And Netanyahu aides said the prime minister isn’t going to go further on settlements than his predecessors, including the last prime minister, Ehud Olmert.
“If you build inside an existing community, you are not prejudging in any way what happens in final status agreement,” said one senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Netanyahu’s agenda. “It’s not a radical departure from the policies of the Olmert government.”
Netanyahu aides and advisers also indicated that the prime minister won’t accede to widespread international pressure to explicitly accept the creation of a Palestinian state as a cornerstone to regional peace.
“Netanyahu will not come out with a statement that he supports a two-state solution,” said Zalman Shoval, a veteran Israeli diplomat who’s helped the new government formulate its foreign policy.
Shoval, who twice served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Netanyahu won’t agree in principle to the creation of a Palestinian state until Israel receives assurances that the new nation won’t threaten Israel’s security.
Instead, Netanyahu is expected to echo his predecessors by pledging to dismantle dozens of smaller illegal settlements and remove military roadblocks in the West Bank that have constricted development of the Palestinian economy.