Netanyahu sets a test for Obama

As Benjamin Netanyahu departs for Washington before Thursday's re-launch of peace talks with the Palestinians, his main aim for the negotiations is unlikely to be Palestinian statehood.

TEL AVIV // As Benjamin Netanyahu departs for Washington today before Thursday's re-launch of peace talks with the Palestinians, the Israeli prime minister's main aim for the negotiations is unlikely to be Palestinian statehood. Instead, Israeli analysts say Mr Netanyahu will try to bolster Israel's battered international image, hurt most recently by its navy's deadly raid on an aid flotilla. Another prime objective will be to urge Barack Obama, the US president, to adopt more aggressive action against Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"In the case of Obama and Netanyahu, the deal can be summed up as 'Iran in exchange for the settlements'," wrote Aluf Benn, a prominent commentator for Haaretz. "The tougher the line that Washington takes on the Iranian nuclear project, or the more freedom of action it gives Israel, the more Israel will cede in the West Bank." Indeed, Mr Netanyahu's most immediate test will be whether he extends in some form the 10-month partial construction moratorium on Jewish settlements in the West Bank when the freeze expires on September 26.

Mr Netanyahu has kept mum on the settlements in recent weeks and has also not commented on a proposal raised by some centrist members of his party to resume building only in the large settlements that Israel plans to keep under any peace pact. Some analysts, however, have said Mr Netanyahu may be open to the idea because he does not visit Jewish communities in the West Bank outside the large settlements, indicating he does not view them as essential.

On Sunday, though, he told government ministers from his Likud Party that he never promised the US administration that the partial freeze would continue after talks begin. He said the government has not taken a decision and added: "We have not presented any proposal to the Americans on an extension of the freeze?we have said the future of settlements will be taken up with other questions in discussions on a final accord."

Israeli radio reported yesterday that if the moratorium is not renewed, construction of several thousand homes could start immediately in 57 settlements that possess permits. Mr Netanyahu's negotiating team is mostly made up of long-time confidants known for being right-leaning and security-minded. It will probably include the national security council head, Uzi Arad, a former research director at the Mossad spy agency who has gained a reputation as a quick-tempered ideological hawk. He has had an unsteady relationship with the United States, which barred him in 2007 from entering amid reports that he may have been tied to a spying scandal involving a Pentagon official who was jailed in 2006 for passing secrets about Iran to the Israeli lobby Aipac. Since then, the ban has been lifted.

Yitzhak Molcho, a long-time aide, and Ron Dermer, a foreign policy adviser, also will probably be on the team. Mr Dermer has said "the idea of two states for two peoples is a stupid and childish solution to a very complex problem". While the premier has insisted the talks should be held without preconditions, he has also made his key demands clear. Chief among them is that the Palestinians must recognise Israel as the Jewish homeland. The Palestinians have repeatedly rejected endorsing Israel as Jewish. They fear that such a move may mean their surrender of the claim that refugees who fled or were expelled when Israel was established in 1948, and their descendents, should be allowed to reclaim their former homes in Israel proper.

Mr Netanyahu also wants security measures to be instituted in the West Bank should Israel pull out, including demilitarisation of a Palestinian state and the maintaining of an Israeli army presence on the West Bank's border with Jordan. Finally, he wants an official declaration of a so-called end to the conflict between Israel and the Arabs, in a bid to avoid future claims by Palestinian citizens of Israel residing in the northern Galilee area or the southern Negev desert for autonomy or independence.

The talks have already been clouded by comments made on Saturday by Ovadia Yosef, an influential Israeli rabbi and spiritual head of an ultra-Orthodox party who is a key member of Mr Netanyahu's coalition, who urged God to strike the Palestinians with a plague. Mr Netanyahu yesterday said the remarks do not reflect his views or his government's.