WASHINGTON - From the minute Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House Tuesday and made his way to the joint press conference with President Barack Obama, efforts to radiate a sense of friendship and the absence of any crisis in relations between the two leaders were clearly evident.
Obama applauded the speech Netanyahu gave during the July 4th festivities, adding that "the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable." The American president also commended the revised list of items banned from the Gaza Strip, saying Israel acted faster and with greater efficiency than the international community had expected.
For his part, Netanyahu emerged from the White House meeting in high spirits. Present at the dinner held for the Israeli delegation were Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Special Mideast Envoy George Mitchell, special adviser Dennis Ross and National Security Adviser James Jones.
First Lady Michelle Obama hosted Sarah Netanyahu at the White House, a meeting that was described as warm and friendly, and which lasted 30 minutes longer than had been scheduled.
Prime Minister Netanyahu promised Obama during their meeting that Israel will undertake confidence-building steps toward the Palestinian Authority in the coming days and weeks. These steps are likely to include the transfer to PA security forces responsibility for more parts of the West Bank.
The two leaders met alone for about 90 minutes Tuesday evening, during which time they discussed the peace process with the Palestinians, the Iranian nuclear program, and the strategic understandings between their two countries on Tehran's efforts to achieve nuclear capabilities.
"There are going to need to be a whole set of confidence-building measures to make sure that people are serious and that we're sending a signal to the region that this isn't just more talk and more process without action," the U.S. president said during the joint press conference.
"I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he's willing to take risks for peace... Now more than ever I think is the time for us to seize on that vision. And I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared to do so... We expect [the] proximity talks to lead to direct talks, and I believe that the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such direct talks," Obama said.
The American president added that he told Netanyahu that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have taken many steps to improve security in the West Bank.
"And so us being able to widen the scope of their responsibilities in the West Bank is something that I think would be very meaningful to the Palestinian people," Obama said. "Then Palestinians can see in very concrete terms what peace can bring that rhetoric and violence cannot bring."
Netanyahu said Israel is willing to give a lot for peace, but wants to know that Iran's proxies will not take over the territories it will evacuate.
"The President and I discussed concrete steps that could be done now, in the coming days and the coming weeks, to move the peace process further along in a very robust way," Netanyahu said.
The two leaders avoided discussing directly the issue of the freeze on settlement construction. Netanyahu did not respond to a question on the issue and Obama made do with applauding the freeze that has been in place in recent months, saying it would contribute to moving the process to a direct-talks phase.
The U.S. president did not say specifically that he wants to see the freeze continue. He did promise that there will be no change in U.S. policy on Israel's nuclear program.
"I reiterated to the prime minister that there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues. We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it's in, and the threats that are leveled against us - against it, that Israel has unique security requirements," Obama said. "It's got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that's why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel's security. And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday that Washington welcomed the Israeli government's announcement that it was expanding the list of items being allowed into the Gaza Strip, but added that implementation of the policy is critical. He added that there was work to be done with Israel and along with the Quartet and the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and others, efforts will continue to see the new policy implemented.
Sources close to Netanyahu said no pressure had been put on the prime minister in terms of the settlement freeze and that both sides maneuvered around the issue, which over the past 18 months had become a thorn in relations between the two allies.
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