Trump, Netanyahu Align on Tough Iran Stance Before Talks
By Nike Ching February 14, 2017
As President Donald Trump prepares for his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since entering the White House, analysts say the Israeli leader hopes to forge common ground on Iran and regional issues.
Netanyahu will be the fourth foreign leader to meet with Trump face-to-face at the White House, after British Prime Minister Theresa May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Middle East analysts say Trump and Netanyahu want to set in motion a chain of events that could block Iran, redefine Israel's relationship with the Arab world, and create Israeli-Palestinian peace.
A senior Israeli Cabinet minister said Monday Netanyahu no longer supports a Palestinian state, but stopped short of confirming whether the prime minister will make his stance public during Wednesday's talks with Trump.
Netanyahu declined to elaborate on his position on the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution as he departed for the United States.
"Come with me, you will hear very clear answers, very clear answers," said Netanyahu, when asked by a reporter if he still stands by the two-state solution.
"The Palestinians will be watching this very closely and will be looking for any hints that the U.S. policy has substantially changed," said retired Ambassador Richard Lebaron, who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv from 2001 to 2004.
David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process, points to two big questions that will likely be the focal point of talks: "How to work with Arab states? How to constrain Iran's influence in the region?"
Makovsky, who recently visited Israel, said the Iran nuclear deal and sanctions are among the main issues on the agenda for the Trump-Netanyahu meeting.
In July of 2015, Iran and six world powers reached a comprehensive agreement, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which curbed Tehran's ability to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting stringent economic sanctions.
Trump and Netanyahu are strong critics of this deal. They have also advocated for the termination of JCPOA, which was backed by the Obama administration.
But many see an evolving approach of the Trump administration, shifting from dismantling the deal to tightening its enforcement, while increasing pressure on Iran for its recent ballistic missile test.
"I was reassured by what I heard in the meetings on the intention to stick to the full implementation of the agreement," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Friday, after talks at the White House and State Department.
"I think the debate about ripping up the agreement has essentially been settled and there are very few prominent voices [advocating that]," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "The debate is within the how do you enforce the hell out of it."
Career diplomat Lebaron told VOA he does not sense "an immediate need on either side to dismantle the agreement per se."
Instead the former ambassador to Kuwait says he expects "robust" discussion on how to continue the pressure on Iran over its behavior, including its actions in Syria, Lebanon and other countries in the region.
"Keeping in mind also that this agreement involves several other major powers," Lebaron added.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said Tehran will "strongly confront any war-mongering policies" amid increased tensions with the United States following Trump's election.
President Trump has made promises that were viewed as veering sharply from longstanding U.S. policy regarding the Israel-Palestine dispute.
He has pledged to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an approach that would break decades of U.S policy, which calls for the city's disputed status to be resolved through negotiations.
Trump has also signaled that he would take a much softer approach to the settlements.
Last December, he criticized the Obama administration's decision to abstain on a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israel's settlement construction in the West Bank.
"I expect the president to find a way to implement and fulfill these promises," said Satloff.
He added those promises have a role to play in whether Netanyahu can return home with enough political gains "to enable him to withstand the pressure" from Israel's right-wing.
But others said the meeting could be primarily symbolic.
"There is no doubt that in a certain way there's a lower expectation because, indeed, President Trump doesn't have a team in place," said Washington Institute's Makovsky. "It's easier for him to say, 'I'm in a listening mode".
Though Trump has expressed an intention to facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he has not indicated much sympathy with the aspirations of the latter.
The Palestinians are "already seeing that in the way the president refers to settlements and so there will be some apprehension about how this may unfold," said Ambassador Lebaron.
Before flying home Thursday, Netanyahu plans to meet U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders. Secretary Tillerson will host a working dinner with Netanyahu Tuesday at the State Department.
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