Pres. Obama Holds Surprise Meeting With Ehud Barak

United States President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance yesterday at a meeting Defense Minister Ehud Barak was holding in Washington, shortly before the U.S. leader was set to leave on a five-day trip to the Middle East.

Obama spoke for about 15 minutes with Barak, who was meeting with National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones at the time. While Obama's official schedule did not include a meeting with Barak, he has in the past dropped into other officials' meetings with international figures.

Obama intends to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu four to six weeks to provide an "updated position" regarding construction in the settlements and the two-state principle.

According to an official Israeli source, Obama wants to complete the formulation of a preliminary six-month plan for progress toward a Middle East peace agreement and to present it in July.

The U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, will arrive in Israel Monday night. He will meet with Netanyahu the next day in a bid to obtain clarifications regarding the U.S. demand to stop construction in the settlements and on the principle of two states for two peoples.

According to the Jerusalem source, Mitchell is expected to seek answers to questions raised during his meeting with the prime minister's adivsers last week in London as well as to issues raised by senior administration officials following their meeting with Barak yesterday.

Mitchell is to visit the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Barak and Jones met for more than two hours privately and discussed the settlements controversy. Obama will arrive in Riyadh today, continuing on to Cairo to deliver a much-anticipated speech tomorrow Thursday aimed at repairing frayed relations with the Muslim world.

While in Riyadh, Obama is expected ask Saudi King Abdullah to give a green light to other moderate Arab countries, particularly the Gulf States, to take steps toward normalization with Israel, such as the opening of diplomatic missions or public meetings with senior Israeli officials, in exchange for a freeze on settlement construction. It is unclear whether the Saudis will cooperate.

Before Obama left for the Middle East he sent messages to both Israel and the Aarab countries via interviews he to the BBC and National Public Radio.

Part of being a good friend is being honest," Obama told NPR regarding relations with Israel. "

"I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests," he said.

Obama also said he did not rule out future talks with Hamas, but only if the organization met demands to recognize Israel, disavow violence and honor existing agreements.

Tensions between Israel and the U.S. are making pro-Israel Congress representatives uneasy. Last week 329 representatives sent a letter to Obama outlining the "right way" to peace in the Middle East, calling on Obama to be an honest broker and also a friend to Israel.

Despite tensions over the settlement issue, Israel and the U.S. are to begin high-level consultations next week on the Iranian nuclear program and the dialogue between Washington and Tehran. The Prime Minister's Bureau declined to comment on the consultation.

A government source said that the meeting would be the first of a joint working group on the Iranian issue, decided on during Netanyahu's visit to Washington. The aim of the working group is to coordinate moves on the Iranian nuclear issue and update Israel on U.S. intentions in its dialogue with Iran.

The Israeli delegation to the group is expected to be led by National Security Council head Uzi Arad and is to include officials from the Defense MInistry, the Mossad, Military Intelligence, the Foreign Ministry and the Atomic Energy Commission.

The U.S. team will probably be headed by Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

The first meeting is expected to deal with the upcoming elections in Iran and the possible opening of U.S. dialogue with Tehran after a victor is declared.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met yesterday in Moscow with Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and stressed the need to stop the Iranian nuclear program.