Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unannounced, lightning visit to neighboring Jordan on Thursday, as regional leaders sought to lay the groundwork for restarting Israel-Arab peace efforts before the Israeli leader flies to Washington for a crucial visit with the US president.
Netanyahu has been trying to forge cooperation with moderate Arab nations against what he says is a threat posed by Iran and its regional proxies, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. On Monday, Netanyahu flew to Egypt for talks with President Hosni Mubarak.
On Thursday's trip, he met with Jordan's King Abdullah II, who has been lobbying for a sweeping resolution of Israel's conflicts with the Muslim world, in step with the Obama administration's efforts to link progress on peacemaking to progress on curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu, however, argues that peacemaking cannot progress until Iran's influence in the region is clipped.
Abdullah pressed Netanyahu in their meeting Thursday to "immediately declare his commitment to a two-state solution, acceptance of the Arab peace initiative and to take necessary steps to move forward toward a solution," according to a royal palace statement. It did give Netanyahu's response, and a spokesman for the Israeli leader was not immediately available for comment.
He will likely hear a similar message from Pope Benedict XVI when they meet later Thursday in the biblical town of Nazareth. The pontiff has used his first visit to the Holy Land to deliver a powerful plea for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Netanyahu's election this year has been ill-received in the Arab world because of his hard-line positions against yielding land captured in Middle East wars and his refusal to support Palestinian independence.
During the meeting with the Jordanian king Netanyahu said he intends to devise a plan meant to bolster the Palestinian security forces as well as various mutual Israeli-Palestinian financial ventures.
"I'm aware of the need to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and I intend to focus the talks on political, security and financial issues, none of which will take precedent over the other. I believe in changing the reality on the ground," he said.
No endorsement of Palestinian statehoodIn Egypt, he sought help in building a coalition of Arab nations against Iran and said he hoped to renew peace talks with the Palestinians in the coming weeks. But he made no endorsement of Palestinian statehood.
The US shares Israel's concern about Iran and its nuclear program, but says moderate Arab states will not join a united front against Tehran unless Israel moves vigorously on peacemaking.
Iran says its nuclear program is designed to produce energy, but Israel, the US and many other countries think Tehran is trying to develop atomic weapons.
Netanyahu says Iran's nuclear program is Israel's greatest threat and has hinted Israel might be willing to attack if international diplomatic pressure fails to stop Iran from enriching uranium, a process needed to produce bombs, but which is also used to produce fuel for power plants.
Israeli media have reported that Netanyahu has met with military commanders and is pleased with their preparations for a military strike.
Vice President Joe Biden recently said Israeli military action in Iran would be "ill-advised" and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reasoned it would not set back the Iranian program more than three years.
An attack certainly would risk an Iranian reprisal against Israel, or American troops in the Middle East.
Israeli aircraft destroyed Iraq's unfinished nuclear reactor in 1981, but a strike against Iran's program would be more complicated because Iranian facilities are scatted across a vast country and some are buried underground.