U.S. President Barack Obama voiced hope in a fence-mending meeting on Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that direct Israeli-Palestinian talks would begin before a temporary moratorium on Israeli settlement construction expires in September.
"We expect proximity talks to lead to direct talks," Obama said as he and Netanyahu appeared before reporters in the Oval Office. The joint appearance was intended to display warmer relations after ties reached a low point in March in a feud over Israeli settlement expansion.
Netanyahu echoed Obama, who said he hoped direct negotiations would get under way "well before" the 10-month Israeli freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank expires in September.
Netanyahu has called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet him and move from the current U.S.-mediated "proximity talks" to face-to-face negotiations on Palestinian statehood.
It was "high time," Netanyahu said, to begin direct talks. Obama said he hoped confidence-building measures by both sides would help ease the way to such negotiations. Obama added, however that the "U.S. will never ask Israel to do anything that undermines its security."
Netanyahu said without elaborating that he and Obama discussed specific steps that could be taken in the coming weeks to move the peace process forward. "When I say the next few weeks, that's what I mean," he said. "The president means that too."
Netanyahu and Obama talked in the Oval Office as protesters gathered across the street in Lafayette Park and chanted "No More Aid" and "End the Blockade" referring to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Netanyahu goes to Washington
Obama expressed belief that Israel truly "wants peace" and that Netanyahu was serious about resuming direct peace talks with the Palestinians. The U.S. president also hailed "real progress" in Gaza, praising Israel's decision to allow in more goods. Obama added that the bond between Israel and the U.S. was "unbreakable."
Obama went on to day that he disagreed with notions of a rift between Israel and the U.S., saying that his support for Israel had never wavered. In response, Netanyahu said that reports of demise of U.S.-Israeli relationship were "flat wrong."
Netanyahu then invited Obama and his wife to visit Israel, to which the U.S. president replied "I'm ready. We look forward to it."
Netanyahu received a warmer welcome than he did in March, when Obama kept him at arm's length in what was widely viewed as a snub over settlement policy. Washington views Israel's expanding settlements in the West Bank, a territory slated for a future Palestinian state, as an obstacle to U.S.-led peace efforts.
Expectations for a major breakthrough were low. But the meeting, postponed a month ago after a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, could test whether the two leaders can overcome recent tensions and work together to restart long-stalled direct Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
Both leaders face domestic pressures and need to downplay their differences.
Obama is unlikely to risk another diplomatic clash with Netanyahu with pivotal U.S. congressional elections looming in November and pro-Israel sentiment strong among American lawmakers and voters.
After an overnight flight from Tel Aviv, Netanyahu stepped out of a limousine and walked into the White House west wing.
Carefully choreographing what some analysts have dubbed a "make-up" visit, Obama's aides arranged media coverage after the Oval Office talks, when body language is sure to be scrutinized. Afterward, the leaders were to eat lunch together.
Last time, there was no photo-op and no meal for Netanyahu, whose visit marked a low point in his relationship with Obama.
The rare chill in relations has thawed recently with Obama shifting to a gentler tone and Netanyahu offering conciliatory gestures. The two also have found common ground opposing Iran's nuclear program, which will be high on Tuesday's agenda.
A big question hanging over the fragile peace process is whether Netanyahu will extend the moratorium on new settlement construction past its September expiration date. The 10-month construction freeze was agreed upon only under pressure from Obama.
Extending the moratorium beyond the agreed upon 10-month period would put a strain on Netanyahu's governing coalition, which includes a key far-right party.
Following the meeting, Netanyahu's close associates said that Obama did not "push" on the topic of the settlement freeze, as he was previously expected to do. Both sides maneuvered around the issue of the settlements, they said.
Pushing the peace process forward is central to Obama's agenda for repairing U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which have been strained by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Netanyahu's visit was originally scheduled for June 1. That meeting was scrapped after the Israeli raid on a Gaza aid ship on May 31, which sparked an international outcry and prompted Israel to ease its land blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.
Obama has limited room to maneuver in pressuring Israel. Hoping to stave off big losses by his Democrats in the mid-term elections, he wants to avoid giving Republicans ammunition to sow public doubt about his commitment to Israel.
The administration has worked hard to soften its tone toward Netanyahu after a diplomatic blowup sparked by Israel's March 9 announcement - during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden - of plans to build 1,600 more settler homes in an area of the West Bank it annexed to Jerusalem.
For his part, Netanyahu is keen to show the Israeli public that relations with their superpower ally are back on track but will be reluctant to offer major concessions that would anger pro-settler parties in his fragile coalition.
Meanwhile, first lady Michelle Obama met with Sarah Netanyahu at the White House, in what they described as a warm encounter. The scheduled half-hour meeting turned into an hour-long friendly chat.
In an article coinciding with Netanyahu's visit, the New York Times said U.S. and Israeli public records showed at least 40 American groups collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade.
Two years ago, a review by Reuters of U.S. tax records found 13 tax-exempt organizations openly linked to settlements that had raised more than $35 million between 2003 and 2008.
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