As U.S. Officials Descend on Israel, Iran Is on Everyone's Mind

Obama's National Security Adviser and a top State Department official both held high-level meetings in Jerusalem, ahead of Hillary Clinton's high-profile visit.

A steady stream of senior U.S. officials has arrived in Israel over the last four days. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to arrive last night for talks in Jerusalem, one day after National Security Advisor Tom Donilon came in for a secret visit, confirmed by the White House only after he had concluded his talks here.

Donilon is one of President Barack Obama's closest aides, and has been mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state if Obama wins a second term this November. Even if he isn't named secretary of state, Donilon is expected to continue as Obama's chief security aide. It wasn't immediately clear what brought about Donilon's surprise visit, though the Iranian nuclear issue was at the center of the talks. He apparently met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror on Sunday.

While the negotiations between Iran and the bloc of countries known as the P5+1 reached a dead end last month, the United States announced this past weekend that it would impose harsher economic sanctions against the Ayatollahs' regime. These include a ban on business interactions with a long list of Iranian oil, shipping, and missile entities. The centerpiece of this latest round of measures was a ban on any interaction with the Iranian national oil tanker company, which, with its 57 ships, is in charge of marketing and transporting Iranian oil around the globe. The United States updated Israel on these sanctions during the visit of yet another American official, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, last Thursday.

During a meeting in Jerusalem with his Israeli counterpart, Danny Ayalon, Burns told Ayalon that the purpose of these new sanctions was to bring about a drop of 50-60 percent in the sale of Iranian oil. He indicated that, if this goal is achieved, the Iranian regime will face unprecedented economic pressure.

The American administration, along with the three European superpowers involved in the talks France, Germany, and Britain believe that Israel considers nuclear talks to be "irrelevant," and thus continues to prepare for the possibility of military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. However, Netanyahu has yet to make a principled decision favoring military action.

Clinton is scheduled to attend a state dinner in Jerusalem with Netanyahu on Monday. Her arrival in Israel follows an unusual, and slightly embarrassing, absence of almost two years. Clinton's last visit to Israel was on September 15, 2010, when Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem. Two weeks after that meeting, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians imploded, and Clinton has avoided a visit since.

Speaking to Haaretz, senior U.S. officials who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Clinton, who visited neighboring countries more than once in those two years, has not come to Israel or the Palestinian Authority because she didn't feel such a trip would result in jump starting stalled peace talks. According to the officials, Clinton wasn't interested in a visit that wouldn't bear fruit.

The fact that Clinton's trip comes one week before the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gives the visit an internal-U.S. political spin. American media outlets have been filled with speculations, with many opining that Obama sent Clinton now as a kind of "preemptive visit," ahead of Romney's.

While Clinton's meetings in Israel will likely focus on Iran to a large extent, Israel-Egypt ties are expected to take the spotlight. The secretary of state was just in Cairo, where she met Egypt's president-elect Mohammed Morsi. Clinton heard soothing rhetoric from Morsi concerning anything related to the future of Israel's peace deal with Egypt, and she emphasized in her Egyptian press conference that she hoped Morsi and Netanyahu would meet soon.

Another issue Clinton is expected to discuss with Netanyahu is the Palestinian threat that it will put in a bid in September to the United Nation's General Assembly in an effort to be granted the status of an observer-state that is not a full UN member. Clinton, who met with Abbas last week in Paris, will urge Netanyahu to pledge a significant enough package of gestures to convince the Palestinians against such a bid.

Tom Donilon - AP - 18.5.2012