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Obama, Netanyahu on Collision Course   02/28 14:32

   For six years, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 
Netanyahu have been on a collision course over how to halt Iran's nuclear 
ambitions, a high-stakes endeavor both men see as a centerpiece of their 

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- For six years, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime 
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been on a collision course over how to halt 
Iran's nuclear ambitions, a high-stakes endeavor both men see as a centerpiece 
of their legacies.

   The coming weeks will put the relationship between their countries, which 
otherwise remain stalwart allies, to one of its toughest tests.

   Netanyahu is bound for Washington for an address to Congress on Tuesday 
aimed squarely at derailing Obama's cherished bid for a diplomatic deal with 
Tehran. At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry and other international 
negotiators will be in Switzerland for talks with the Iranians, trying for a 
framework agreement before a late March deadline.

   In between are Israel's elections March 17, which have heightened the 
political overtones of Netanyahu's visit to Washington.

   The prime minister is speaking to Congress at the request of Republicans. 
His visit was coordinated without the Obama administration's knowledge, 
deepening tensions between two leaders who have never shown much affection for 
each other.

   Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, 
said Netanyahu was "crossing some lines that haven't been crossed before and is 
putting Israel into the partisan crossfire in a way it has not been before."

   But the largest pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., the American Israel Public 
Affairs Committee, has tried to play down the partisanship.

   "AIPAC welcomes the prime minister's speech to Congress and we believe that 
this is a very important address," spokesman Marshall Wittmann said. "We have 
been actively encouraging senators and representatives to attend and we have 
received an overwhelmingly positive response from both sides of the aisle."

   Nearly a dozen Democratic lawmakers plan to sit out Netanyahu's speech, 
calling it an affront to the president.

   Stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb has become a defining challenge 
for both Obama and Netanyahu, yet one they have approached far differently.

   For Obama, getting Iran to verifiably prove it is not pursuing nuclear 
weapons would be a bright spot in a foreign policy arena in which numerous 
outcomes are uncertain and would validate his early political promise to 
negotiate with Iran without conditions.

   Netanyahu considers unacceptable any deal with Iran that doesn't end its 
nuclear program entirely and opposes the diplomatic pursuit as one that 
minimizes what he considers an existential threat to Israel.

   Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce 
energy for civilian use.

   "Through scaremongering, falsification, propaganda and creating a false 
atmosphere even inside other countries, (Israel) is attempting to prevent 
peace," Iran's top nuclear negotiator said Saturday in Tehran. "I believe that 
these attempts are in vain and should not impede reaching a (nuclear) 
agreement," said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

   U.S. and Iranian officials reported progress in the latest talks on a deal 
that would freeze Tehran's nuclear program for 10 years, but allow it to slowly 
ramp up in the final years of the accord.

   Obama has refused to meet Netanyahu during his visit, with the White House 
citing its policy of not meeting with foreign leaders soon before their 
elections. Vice President Joe Biden and Kerry will both be out of the country 
on trips announced only after Netanyahu accepted the GOP offer to speak on 
Capitol Hill.

   The prime minister is scheduled to speak Monday at AIPAC's annual policy 
conference. The Obama administration will be represented at the event by U.N. 
Ambassador Samantha Power and national security adviser Susan Rice, who 
criticized Netanyahu's plans to address Congress as "destructive" to the 
U.S.-Israeli relationship.

   The Iran dispute has spotlighted rifts in a relationship that has been 
frosty from the start. Obama and Netanyahu lack any personal chemistry, leaving 
them with virtually no reservoir of goodwill to get them through their policy 

   Within months of taking office, Obama irritated Israel when, in an address 
to the Arab world, he challenged the legitimacy of Jewish settlements on 
Palestinian-claimed land and cited the Holocaust as the justification for 
Israel's existence, not any historical Jewish tie to the land.

   The White House was furious when Netanyahu's government defied Obama and 
announced plans to construct new housing units in East Jerusalem while Biden 
was visiting Israel in 2010. Additional housing plans that year upended U.S. 
efforts to restart peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

   The tension between Obama and Netanyahu was laid bare in an unusually public 
manner during an Oval Office meeting in 2011. In front of a crowd of 
journalists, the prime minister lectured Obama at length on Israel's history 
and dismissed the president's conditions for restarting peace talks.

   Later that year, a microphone caught Obama telling his then-French 
counterpart in a private conversation that while he may be fed up with 
Netanyahu, "You are sick of him, but I have to work with him every day."

   Despite suspecting that Netanyahu was cheering for his rival in the 2012 
presidential campaign, Obama tried to reset relations with the prime minister 
after his re-election. He made his first trip as president to Israel and the 
two leaders went to great lengths to put on a happy front, referring to each 
other by their first names and touring some of the region's holy sites together.

   The healing period was to be short-lived.

   Another attempt at Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed. Israeli 
officials were withering in their criticism of Kerry, who had shepherded the 
talks, with the country's defense minister calling him "obsessive" and 
"messianic." The Obama administration returned the favor last summer with its 
own unusually unsparing criticism of Israel for causing civilian deaths when 
war broke out in Gaza.

   The U.S. and Israel have hit rocky patches before.

   The settlement issue has been a persistent thorn in relations, compounded by 
profound unhappiness in Washington over Israeli military operations in the 
Sinai, Iraq and Lebanon during the Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush 
administrations that led those presidents to take or consider direct punitive 
measures. Yet through it all, the United States has remained Israel's prime 
benefactor, providing it with $3 billion a year in assistance and defending it 
from criticism at the United Nations and elsewhere.

   "We have brought relations back in the past and we will do it again now 
because at the end of the day they are based on mutual interests," said Dore 
Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and informal adviser to 
Netanyahu. "The interests of Israel and the U.S. are similar and sometime 
identical and I think that is what will determine in the end and not feelings 
of one kind or another."


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