WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama dispatches his vice president to the Middle East on Sunday to try to build support for reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks despite deep scepticism on both sides.
Iran is also a top issue for Israelis, many of whom see Obama’s focus on diplomacy and targeted sanctions to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme as wishful thinking.
An Israeli cabinet minister, commenting on Joe Biden’s visit, pointed to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s description of the September 11 attacks in the United States as a “big fabrication” as cause for concern.
“What we have here is a madman, and crazy people can do only crazy things,” Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio. “The Americans ... must see how they can create a reality in which they stop the madman.”
An Israeli political source said Israel expected Biden’s main message would be “don’t bomb Iran,” a cautionary note Washington has sounded before in contacts with Israeli leaders.
Biden will meet Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders starting on Monday, but a main component of his trip will be public diplomacy. That means reassuring anxious Israelis about Obama’s commitment to their security while explaining why they should be willing to make concessions for peacemaking.
Biden was not expected to take part in indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks that would be spearheaded by Obama’s special envoy, George Mitchell, and could be announced during his visit, although he will be briefed on them.
The vice president, who will be the most senior American official to visit Israel since Obama came to office in January 2009, faces a tough sell, Israeli officials and analysts say.
Many Israelis are distrustful of Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, a priority he highlighted with high-profile visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and, later this month, to Indonesia.
“If Israel is supposed to make sacrifices for a peace deal, the Israeli public has to be convinced it is receiving sufficient support from the United States,” an Israeli official said, calling Biden’s visit the beginning of that process.
U.S.-Israeli tensions flared over Obama’s early push for a complete Jewish settlement freeze, although his administration has at least temporarily backed off, embracing a more limited, 10-month moratorium on new building announced in November.
Other differences remain over next steps and the scope of renewed talks with the Palestinians.
Before Biden’s visit, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the case to Israel against taking military action against Iran.
“A strike could be as destabilising as Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” one U.S. official said. An Israeli official said Washington made clear Israel “doesn’t have a military option without U.S. clearance, and we don’t have clearance at this time.”
U.S. and Israeli officials said the main source of discord on Iran for the time being was over the scope of future sanctions, rather than the pros and cons of military action.
The Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will meet Biden, was “disappointed” by sanctions proposed thus far by the United States. “This is not what we’ve been promised,” he said.
Asked if that meant Netanyahu would seek a U.S. green light for striking Iran, another senior Israeli official said: “We’re not there yet. ... This is the time to act on sanctions and it is premature to discuss anything else.”
Israel has called for “crippling” sanctions. Washington wants them to be targeted against hard-liners and is wary of broad-based penalties that could destabilise the Iranian economy as a whole and alienate its people.
Editing by Charles Dick