Thursday, March 12, 2009

Netanyahu aide says Obama agrees on Iran, at least

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama may differ on some issues, but they agree that stopping Iran getting a nuclear bomb is a top priority, a senior adviser to Israel's prime minister-designate said on Thursday.

Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to Washington and foreign relations chief of Netanyahu's Likud party, told Reuters in New York that Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had "started off on the right foot" in relations with the government taking shape in Israel.

He also played down concerns about the likely appointment as foreign minister of Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist head of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party.

"He's a very intelligent person and not necessarily ... inflexible," Shoval said at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of major American Jewish organizations.

The Moldovan-born Lieberman had said he would like to be defense minister -- a prospect that raised eyebrows in Israel and abroad given his hawkish talk on issues such as Iran's nuclear program and on Israel's Arab minority.

Shoval warned against preconceived ideas, recalling that Ariel Sharon was long regarded with similar concern, yet it was Sharon who pulled Israeli troops out of Gaza.

He added that the relationship with Israel's most important ally, the United States, was traditionally "mainly in the hands of the prime minister," and that as foreign minister, Lieberman would not determine policy toward Israel's Arab minority.

"The Arab states, or their officials, are realists and they also understand that the main worry for both Israel and themselves is the Iranian threat," he said. "(That) goes beyond the question of the nuclear bomb. It's the desire for Iranian hegemony in the whole area, which worries the Arabs."


Shoval said both Netanyahu and Obama were pragmatic leaders willing to work together. But he conceded there were likely to be differences, such as on Jerusalem, an Arab peace plan, relations with Syria, settlements and Gaza, where Israel launched an offensive in December to quell Hamas rocket fire.

Shoval said if Hamas continues to fire rockets at Israel, "there may perhaps, or may not be, chapter two" of the Gaza offensive.

Regarding the relationship with the United States, he said, "Our roads may not always run parallel, but there's certainly no reason for a smash up."

On her first visit to Jerusalem as U.S. secretary of state, Clinton said "a two-state solution is inescapable." Netanyahu has strenuously avoided committing to a Palestinian state, and Shoval said there should be no rush to a solution.

"It would be foolhardy to agree today to any sort of fixed or set formula which could create a situation where we would see, within months, Hamas on the walls of Jerusalem," he said.

But he said Clinton's visit was encouraging because both sides agreed that stopping Iran getting a nuclear bomb was an urgent priority.

"She agreed on the necessity for a timeline (on Iran)," he said. "She didn't actually say two or three months, but I think what was implied is it can not be open-ended, because if it is open-ended they will have the bomb and then we'll talk."

"I don't want to paint too rosy a picture (of the U.S. relationship)," he said. "Of course there will be disagreements, perhaps even confrontations."

But he said Obama's administration appeared to accept that Iran, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, "come before the Palestinian-Israeli problem, and rightly so."