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United States President Barack Obama held a "very pleasant" and practical discussion with Ehud Barak on Tuesday, aides to the defense minister said after the pair held an unscheduled meeting in the White House.

"This is part of a long dialogue that began with the prime minister's visit to Washington. [It was] very pleasant and warm," one said.

The aides said there was a large gap between how the media was portraying Israel's relations with the U.S. and how they felt the ties really were, and that this was evident in the meeting between Barak and Obama.

They added that the pair discussed a number of subjects during the meeting, which took place shortly before the U.S. leader was set to leave on a trip to the Middle East.

"The president and the minister didn't go down to details... it was just the beginning of the dialogue, at the level of an understanding of the process," a Barak aide added.

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.

The unplanned encounter came a day after senior American officials harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies, causing tensions between the Obama administration and Israel's government to near crisis levels.

During Barak's meeting with Jones, the defense minister said both Israel and the U.S. were faced with great challenges and opportunities. He added that intimacy, candor and cooperation with the U.S. formed the cornerstone of Israeli policy, both in regard to security threats and to the peace process.

The purpose of Obama's Middle East trip is to repair badly frayed U.S. relations with Muslims and their nations; he plans to visit Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and deliver a much-anticipated speech aimed at Muslims Thursday in Cairo. Obama, however, does not plan to visit Israel.

Obama dispatches envoy to Israel to discuss settlements

Obama, meanwhile, is dispatching Mitchell to Israel in order to hear official responses to U.S. demands for a halt to West Bank settlement building.

Mitchell will arrive for a two-day visit next week on Monday evening, during which he will visit both Jerusalem and Ramallah. He will meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday, with whom he will also discuss the premier's reluctance to declare support for a two-state solution.

According to a political source in Jerusalem, Mitchell is likely to also seek answers on matters raised during meeting meetings he held with Netanyahu's aides in London last week, where there was significant disagreement over settlement construction.

Mitchell will visit the Palestinian Authority and meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

It is still unclear whether the envoy will visit Syria for a meeting with its president, Bashar Assad, before or after the trip to Israel. Mitchell and his aides have been holding contacts with Syrian officials over the possibility of such a visit.

On Monday, the envoy told Barak that the U.S. was no longer willing to return to the understandings between the Sharon and Olmert governments and the Bush administration, which allowed continued settlement construction.

News of Mitchell's planned visit emerged Tuesday a day after Obama told a U.S. radio network in an interview that the U.S. would be more blunt in raising objections to Israel's settlement policies in the Palestinian territories than previous administrations.