At odds with Obama, Netanyahu heads to U.S.

BEN-GURION AIRPORT, Israel Sat May 16, 2009 6:18pm EDT

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BEN-GURION AIRPORT, Israel (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begins on Sunday his first U.S. visit since taking office, promoting policies that could herald a rocky relationship with President Barack Obama.

At the top of Netanyahu's Washington agenda is halting Iran's nuclear program, which Israel calls a threat to its existence, and a new approach to peace with the Palestinians that would shift the focus of talks away from statehood top.

Both issues could put Netanyahu and Obama, who will meet at the White House on Monday, on a collision course, although Israeli and U.S. officials have been trying to play down prospects of a confrontational meeting.

"The inbuilt and natural alliance between the United States and Israel ensures a good dialogue. What we have in common far outweighs whatever disputes there might be," Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Reuters in an interview.

Advocating the creation of a Palestinian state, a cornerstone of U.S. policy that Netanyahu has balked at endorsing, Obama has pledged to make Middle East peacemaking a high priority.

But Netanyahu has signaled he regards halting what Israel believes to be Tehran's push for nuclear weapons as more urgent than the pursuit of elusive peace with the Palestinians.

Noting that Netanyahu and Obama met twice before assuming their current posts, Ayalon, a former ambassador to Washington, added: "There is a strong basis for positive chemistry."

With Hamas Islamists in charge of the Gaza Strip and little progress made in now-frozen statehood negotiations that resumed late in George W. Bush's presidency, Netanyahu has said talks should focus instead on economic, security and political issues.

Palestinians reject that approach, saying they will not negotiate with Netanyahu's right-leaning government until he commits to a two-state solution to the conflict and halts the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

DIFFERENCES

Top Netanyahu aides held preparatory talks in Washington this week, apparently seeking a diplomatic formula that could smooth over his differences with Obama on the statehood issue and settlement building, which the United States opposes.

Obama's efforts to engage Iran have also raised concern in Israel, which has not ruled out military strikes if diplomacy to halt Tehran's uranium enrichment fail. Iran says its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity.

Analysts expect the Obama administration to use Netanyahu's visit to urge Israel, widely believed to be the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, not to act precipitously.

Earlier this month, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that world powers should take action against Iran if it did not curb its nuclear activities by August, a timeframe Netanyahu has not endorsed publicly.

On a diplomatic level, Obama sees Israeli-Palestinian progress as crucial to repairing the U.S. image in the Muslim world and to convincing moderate Arab states to join a united front against Iran.

Israeli officials have rejected any such linkage between resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and enlisting Arab states against Iran.

"Iran is a destabilizing player in the region. It is the root of the problem in many areas," National Security Adviser Uzi Arad told Israel's Channel One television.

"Most of the leaders of the Arab world are aware of this. Therefore whoever wants to stabilize the Middle East must deal with the root of the problem."

Netanyahu will spend three days in Washington. He plans extensive meetings on Tuesday in Congress, where support for Israel traditionally has been strong.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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