Israeli leader heads to Washington as spokesman draws fire

Updated at: 11/08/2015 12:22 PM

(AP) JERUSALEM - JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister on Sunday departed for Washington on a trip that has become clouded in controversy following his appointment of a new spokesman who has spoken derisively about President Barack Obama.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip to the White House comes at a sensitive time for Israel, which is still reeling from the international community's nuclear deal with arch-enemy Iran and a wave of Palestinian violence that shows no signs of ending.

But as Netanyahu departed for Washington, attention remained focused on his appointment of Ran Baratz, a conservative commentator who has suggested in Facebook posts that Obama is anti-Semitic and Secretary of State John Kerry cannot be taken seriously.

Obama and Netanyahu have had a strained relationship over the years, and the timing of Baratz's appointment, which still requires Israeli Cabinet approval, has threatened to overshadow the visit. White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have expressed displeasure over the appointment. Baratz is not on the trip, and Netanyahu has said he will decide his fate after returning to Israel.

Addressing his Cabinet Sunday, Netanyahu made no mention of Baratz, saying the visit would center on "recent events in the Middle East."

Much of the conversation is expected to focus on a nearly two-month wave of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

Since mid-September, 11 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings, while 74 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including 47 who Israel said were involved in attacks or attempted attacks. The other 27 Palestinians were killed in clashes between stone-throwers and security forces.

Israel has accused Palestinian political and religious leaders of inciting the violence. The Palestinians say it is the result of nearly 50 years of military occupation and a lack of hope for gaining independence.

Netanyahu said he would discuss "possible progress with the Palestinians, or at least stabilizing the situation with them." He did not elaborate, though the Haaretz daily said he would suggest various confidence-building measures.

U.S. officials said last week that Obama has made a "realistic assessment" that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is not possible during his final months in office.

They said Obama would be seeking information from Netanyahu on how to lay the groundwork for a future peace.

Monday's meeting will be the first between the men since the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran was finalized over the summer. Netanyahu was an outspoken critic of the deal, and in March he angered the White House by delivering a speech to the Republican-led Congress to rail against the impending agreement.

Monday's talks are expected to include discussions on a new package of U.S. military aid to Israel to help ease Israel's concerns.

Netanyahu said talks would focus on "strengthening the security of the state of Israel, which the U.S. has always been committed to, while maintaining the state of Israel's comparative advantage in the face of a changing Middle East."

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