Netanyahu, Obama poised for first talks since Iran deal

Daphne Rousseau
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US President Barack Obama (R) has previously criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) for sending mixed signals over his commitment to a two-state solution and may press him on the issue

US President Barack Obama (R) has previously criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) for sending mixed signals over his commitment to a two-state solution and may press him on the issue (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)

Washington (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US President Barack Obama in Washington Monday in a bid to set aside their frosty personal ties, turn the page on the Iran nuclear deal and talk defense.

The White House meeting, scheduled for 10:30 am (1530 GMT), will be closely watched in particular because it marks the first encounter by the two leaders since October 2014.

Since then, Washington and other world powers reached a landmark nuclear accord with Tehran in a move Israel strictly opposed.

In the wake of that July agreement, the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama has only deteriorated further.

Matters between the two have been tense for some time. And in March, Netanyahu traveled to the US capital to court Republicans, Obama's political opponents, and addressed Congress -- much to the displeasure of the White House.

Monday's talks, which look to be more functional than warm in nature, are meant to enable a reaffirmation of the unwavering nature of the security alliance between Washington and the Jewish state.

The White House has sought to downplay personal feelings, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying they were "not nearly as important as their ability to work together to advance the national security interests of the two countries that they lead."

But the Israeli daily Maariv has likened the planned meeting to that of a "separated, bitter couple who, after many fights, is only there to make final financial arrangements before the divorce."

Jacob Dayan, who has served as an Israeli diplomat in the United States as well as a peace negotiator, said he expected them to find common ground since Obama wants to be seen as protecting Israel's security and Netanyahu will be seeking concrete commitments.

"Netanyahu will have to show some goodwill," Dayan said. "He cannot come empty-handed and then make demands."

- Defense deal center stage -

The main focus of the meeting will be on US defense aid to Israel in a bid to assuage the Jewish state over the security challenges it says it now faces due to the nuclear accord.

The Israeli premier has deemed the deal a "historic mistake" and argues that it will not block regional rival Iran's path to atomic weapons.

He also contends that the lifting of sanctions will allow Tehran to further back proxy militants in the region, including Israeli enemies Hamas and Hezbollah.

Israel already receives more than $3 billion per year in US military aid in addition to other spending, such as on the Iron Dome missile defense system.

But the 10-year arrangement expires in 2017 and there have been reports that Netanyahu will seek a significant increase.

"I believe that this meeting is important in order to clarify the continuation of American aid to Israel in the coming decade," Netanyahu said Sunday.

Obama and Netanyahu are expected to discuss commitments that could see Israel get more than the 33 hi-tech F-35 jets already ordered, precision munitions and a chance to buy V-22 Ospreys and other weapons systems designed to ensure Israel's military edge over its neighbors.

- Peace process -

The meeting comes amid pressure on Netanyahu to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and put an end to a wave of violence -- including Palestinian gun, knife and car-ramming attacks -- that has raised fears over the potential for a new Palestinian uprising.

More than 70 Palestinians -- many of them alleged attackers -- an Arab-Israeli and 10 Israelis have lost their lives since the start of October.

Obama has previously criticized Netanyahu for sending mixed signals over his commitment to a two-state solution and may press him on the issue.

Haaretz newspaper reported that Netanyahu planned to unveil measures to calm tensions in the West Bank, and that these may include removing some checkpoints and easing certain restrictions on movement.

However, US officials say the president has lost hope of a major peace accord being reached between the Israelis and Palestinians before he leaves office in January 2017.

Senior Obama national security aide Ben Rhodes, in an interview with Haaretz, criticized Israel over West Bank settlements as well as Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's failure to embrace proposed steps toward peace.

Obama "believes the main reason there hasn't been a breakthrough is that no matter what the US did, each time the Israeli and Palestinian leaders had an opportunity to take a leap forward together, neither of them took it," Rhodes said. "We tried everything."

Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Sunday and is expected back in Israel on Thursday, is also due to meet members of Congress and representatives from North American Jewish organizations.

On Monday, he will receive an award from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

He will also address the left-leaning Center for American Progress in what some analysts see as an attempt to improve relations with Democrats.