LONDON // Benjamin Netanyahu flew in to London yesterday with Iran firmly at the top of his agenda. Unluckily for him, the people he will be talking to during his four-day European trip have Palestine at the top of theirs. Therein lies the problem for the Israeli prime minister, who knows that, if he bows to European and US demands for an immediate halt to expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, his fractious, ruling coalition back home might well fall apart.
During his talks today with Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister; tomorrow with George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy; and on Thursday with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Mr Netanyahu will face an incessant barrage of demands for Israeli building in the Palestinian territories to stop. The issue has produced an unprecedented rift between the Israeli and US governments, while the Germans have been outspoken in their criticism of the settlements in the territories.
Even Mr Brown, once seen as something of an apologist for Israel, has adopted a noticeably harder line since the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip. A US compromise - allowing some of the thousands of homes already under construction to be completed in return for a moratorium on further building - will be formally put on the table by Mr Mitchell. Although Mr Netanyahu will probably go along with this, especially if he gets in return the promise of renewed ties with Qatar and Oman, he knows that such a deal will divide, perhaps fatally, his coalition cabinet.
During a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu was quoted by officials as saying: "There is an assessment that we can [resume peace talks] by the end of September, depending on understandings between us, the Americans and the Palestinians." Such optimism was hardly reflected, however, in subsequent comments by his ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a leading opponent of any freeze on settlement building, which is a Palestinian prerequisite for the resumption of talks.
Bringing US President Barack Obama's dream of peace "to fruition in two years, including an overall agreement and a Palestinian state, is an unrealistic goal", insisted Mr Lieberman, who added that he did not see a peace agreement based on a two-state solution "even in another 16 years". Hardline coalition ministers allied with Mr Lieberman have recently shown their support for continued Israeli expansion in the West Bank by visiting one of the unauthorised settlements that Mr Netanyahu has promised to remove. The ministers used the trip to call on the prime minister to ignore Mr Obama's demand that Israel stop building homes in occupied territory.
Facing these sorts of problems, Mr Netanyahu will plead for understanding from the European leaders and, particularly, the United States. His task, however, will not be easy. Mr Obama and the Europeans have made it clear that they regard the settlement issue as crucial to hopes of restarting the peace talks that ended last December with the invasion of Gaza. Hanan Crystal, an Israeli political analyst, told the Associated Press yesterday: "It's very clear that Mr Netanyahu's goal is not to lose his coalition and not to fight with Obama.
"The question is: how do you stop settlements while preventing the toppling of the government?" According to Mr Crystal, the answer is likely to be an agreement on the US compromise on settlements while Mr Netanyahu "winks" at his hardline allies at home. "He's an expert at winking," Mr Crystal added. Mr Netanyahu's talks about Iran while he is in Britain and Germany are likely to be more straightforward.
The Israeli prime minister wants tough action, including much more stringent sanctions, to be imposed when members of the UN Security Council discuss Iran's controversial nuclear programme next month. Although Tehran denies that it has embarked on building an atom bomb, the West remains unconvinced and Israel has repeatedly threatened a military strike against Iran. Mark Regev, Mr Netanyahu's spokesman, said before the Israeli party left for London yesterday: "Israel believes that the efforts to prevent the Iranian regime from going nuclear must be stepped up."
Washington continues to lead international efforts for a negotiated solution, but the Obama administration made it clear this month that it would favour a range of new sanctions if Tehran failed to enter into talks by the end of September. Although Mr Netanyahu will be pushing at an open door when he discusses Iran with Mr Brown, he is likely to adopt a tougher stance in talks with Mrs Merkel. Germany maintains the greatest amount of trade with Iran of all European countries.
The feeling, both in Israel and among Germany's Nato allies, is that Mrs Merkel's government is still not doing enough to change Iranian minds over the nuclear programme. firstname.lastname@example.org