JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be looking to build a coalition against Iran and exchange ideas on advancing Middle East peace negotiations when he visits Egypt Monday on his first trip to the Arab world since he took office.
Netanyahu is hoping to find some common ground with his Arab neighbors ahead of his pivotal trip to Washington later this month. Efforts are also under way to arrange a trip to Jordan later in the week.
Egypt will be looking for the Israeli leader to endorse the internationally backed idea of a Palestinian state, something he has not done so far.
Netanyahu's election 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. Netanyahu hopes to redefine the regional agenda by focusing on Iran as the key threat to Mideast stability.
Egypt, a regional heavyweight, and Jordan are the only Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel. Because they, too, fear Iran's rising influence in the region, Netanyahu hopes to use them as bridgeheads for his ideas among moderate Arab states.
Both Israel and Arab moderates, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have expressed concern over President Barack Obama's efforts to start a dialogue with Iran.
Netanyahu's decision to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before sitting down with Obama on May 18 demonstrates his belief that "now is the time to intensify the coordination and the cooperation between Israel and those Arab countries (that) believe in peace," an official in the prime minister's office said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meeting in advance.
"Our common goals are the desire to strengthen regional stability and to advance the Middle East peace process," the official said. "Our common threats are Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza."
Israel has warred with both militant groups, most recently with Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers.
Egypt also had its differences with both groups.
Several weeks ago, Egypt announced it had uncovered a Hezbollah cell plotting to attack Egyptian institutions and Israeli tourists in an effort to destabilize the country. Egypt, along with Israel, also has maintained a blockade of Gaza since Hamas violently seized power there in June 2007.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said his government hoped Netanyahu would lay out his plans for moving forward on the Palestinian issue.
"So far he has not come out openly and directly and said he is supportive of the two-state solution. We have called on him to do that and we will continue to do that," Zaki told The Associated Press.
Although Egypt will listen to what Netanyahu has to say on Iran, "we are focused on Palestine," he said.
Israel, like the U.S. and many other countries, believes Iran is aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The Jewish state regards the Islamic Republic as its greatest threat, especially in light of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for Israel's annihilation. Oil-rich Iran says its nuclear program is designed solely to produce energy.
Netanyahu says Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking can't progress as long as Iran keeps meddling in the region.
While the U.S. too is concerned about Iran's role in the region, it also is pressing hard for an Israeli commitment to establish a Palestinian state. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that Israel can't expect Arab states to join an international coalition to rein in Iran if Israel doesn't advance Palestinian statehood.
Jordan's King Abdullah spoke last week of a "combined approach" to tackling the Mideast conflict that would involve not only Israel and the Palestinians, but Arab states as well. As part of this comprehensive approach, the U.S. has asked the 22-member Arab League to amend a 2002 peace initiative to make it more palatable to Israel, Arab diplomats said.
The current Arab plan offers a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world in return for a Palestinian state on all territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War. It also seeks repatriation of Palestinian refugees displaced in the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.
Israel wants to keep some territory captured in 1967, including east Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, and opposes any large-scale return of Palestinian refugees, saying it would destroy the Jewish character of the country.
On Sunday, an Israeli Cabinet minister said Netanyahu told members of his Likud Party that he will never withdraw from the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal with Syria. Israel captured the strategic plateau in the 1967 war, and Syria says there will not be peace until Israel returns the territory.
While Netanyahu has repeatedly said he opposes a Golan pullout, Cabinet Minister Yisrael Katz said the timing of the Israel leader's message had "great significance" in light of the coming White House trip.
"The prime minister is sending a message about Israeli security. It is a message to the United States, to the region and the world," said Katz, a close ally of Netanyahu's. "Israel will be willing to hold negotiations in the future, but there will be no Israeli obligation to withdrawing from the Golan."
Netanyahu's office declined comment.
The last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which had aimed for an agreement on Palestinian independence in 2008, ended without tangible results last year.
Complicating matters is the internal Palestinian divide. Moderates led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas control the West Bank while the Islamic militant Hamas rules Gaza. Abbas favors talks with Israel, while Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.