x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Israel unlikely to relax tough attitude towards US president

There is little hope that the Israel's prime minister's tensions with the US president over the settlements issue may soon disappear. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV // The swearing-in today of Benjamin Netanyahu's new government, in which key posts are dominated by pro-settler figures, inspires little hope that the Israeli prime minister's tensions with the US president over the settlements issue may soon disappear.

After all, the administration of Barack Obama has long expressed frustration at the Israeli premier's refusal to renew a 2009 partial construction halt in Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in an attempt to reignite deadlocked talks on Palestinian statehood.

The two leaders have also disagreed on how to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and Mr Netanyahu had openly shown support for Mr Obama's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, during the US presidential election last year.

Nevertheless, analysts say Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama - both fresh off re-election campaigns - appear set on mitigating their strained ties during the US leader's first presidential trip to Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday. Their interests, however, seem to conflict.

Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political analyst, said Mr Netanyahu wanted the US to stop pressuring Israel on settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and instead focus on the security threats posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions and by the war in Syria.

Mr Obama, he added, aimed to persuade the Israeli leader and public that leaving the dispute with the Palestinians unresolved may lead to a "major conflagration" in the region.

He said: "Obama's major task will be to persuade the Israeli public to pressure the government on making serious moves in the peace process. But Netanyahu will tell him that his hands are tied because settlers now directly control the government."

Mr Obama may not find a very attentive Israeli public. The US president has faced some hostility in Israel for not travelling to the country since his first presidential term started in 2009, even when he visited neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

A poll last week by the right-leaning Israeli news website NRG indicated that 51 per cent of Israelis disliked Mr Obama or were suspicious of his intentions to protect Israeli interests.

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, said: "Obama is viewed by many Israelis as a weak president who is misguided on the Palestinian issue and who allowed Iran to gain an additional four years to develop their nuclear programme. He doesn't strike Israelis as a guy who understands the Middle East."

Mr Obama, in an apparent effort to woo Israelis, on Thursday gave an exclusive 25-minute interview to Israeli television's Channel 2 in which he referred to Mr Netanyahu at least seven times by his popular childhood nickname of Bibi.

He said in the interview: "What this trip allows me to do is once again to connect to the Israeli people … the bonds between our two countries are so strong, not just shared values but shared families, shared businesses."

Mr Obama will also deliver his visit's key speech to Israeli university students at a Jerusalem convention centre instead of addressing the country's parliament, as his predecessor, George W Bush, did.

But few expect his visit to iron out differences with the right-wing Israeli government, which views Iran as the most urgent regional issue.

Mr Netanyahu is concerned that the US would be too reluctant to use force to stop Iran from developing nuclear arms, analysts said. That worry was compounded by Mr Obama's appointments of Chuck Hagel and John Kerry as defence secretary and secretary of state, respectively - both of whom are viewed by Israel as too conciliatory towards Tehran.

The main disagreement between Israel and the US on Iran centres on how long it would take for Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon. Mr Netanyahu said during his speech at the United Nations in September that it could be this spring or summer. Mr Obama, in Thursday's Israeli television interview, said it would "take over a year or so".

Mr Inbar said: "Netanyahu will pressure Obama to put a deadline on diplomatic negotiations with Iran and Obama will try to make sure Israel will not surprise him with a strike against Iran's nuclear sites."

vbekker@thenational.ae

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