Netanyahu Seeking White House Backing to Ease Into Direct Peace Talks With Palestinians

PM also reportedly hopes to use meet with Obama to reach consensus on settlement freeze

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left yesterday for the United States and will meet tonight (Israel time ) with President Barack Obama in the White House. The meeting marks the fifth time the two leaders have met since taking office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara en route to the U.S. yesterday evening.

A high-ranking Israeli official said Netanyahu will try to use the encounter to rebuild trust with the U.S. president and to formulate a joint plan for pushing forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Netanyahu is expected to present several new ideas for jumpstarting talks. In addition, he will reportedly attempt to reach a compromise with the United States over the nature of potential Israeli construction in the West Bank following the expiration of the 10-month settlement building freeze in late September.

Netanyahu met with a number of high-level ministers earlier this week to discuss various ways of advancing diplomatic talks. The prime minister is reportedly still deliberating over whether to pursue direct talks with the Palestinians in a bid to reach a final-status agreement, or to aim for an interim agreement integrating Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's measures of shoring up Palestinian society through gradual, largely economic measures.

Yesterday Netanyahu convened several top Likud ministers for a briefing on the party's talking points during the U.S. trip. He described his central goal in meeting Obama as guiding the current indirect or "proximity" talks with the Palestinians toward direct talks.

U.S. officials are preparing a warm welcome for Netanyahu, including a joint press conference with Obama and a lavish luncheon. In an unusual step, First Lady Michelle Obama has also invited Netanyahu's wife Sara to a personal White House visit during the two leaders' meeting.

Netanyahu will also meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before departing for New York tomorrow. There he will meet with U.S. Jewish leaders and grant a number of television interviews. On Friday he is scheduled to address the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Following his return to Israel next week, Netanyahu will visit Egypt for a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak.

Ahead of Netanyahu's departure, Israel issued an official announcement on its first significant step in easing the civilian blockade on the Gaza Strip. A statement signed by Foreign Ministry Director General Yossi Gal and Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories head Eitan Dangot contained a new "black list" of merchandise that will be barred from the territory.

The list includes weapons and other combat materiel, as well as goods that could be used to produce explosives or projectiles. All other products, the statement said, will be let in.

Israel also released a list including building materials that may be brought into Gaza - though only for Palestinian Authority-run projects under United Nations supervision - including concrete, cement, iron and heavy construction equipment.

Fayyad met yesterday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whom he urged to stop what the Palestinian prime minister described as unilateral Israeli moves in Jerusalem. He urged Barak to halt the demolition of Palestinian homes and expansion of Jewish communities beyond the Green Line, and to reconsider Israel's expulsion of Hamas parliamentarians from Jerusalem.

Fayyad and Barak also discussed the loosening of the blockade on Gaza, and Israeli-Palestinian security and economic coordination in the West Bank. Fayyad called on the defense minister to lift the Gaza blockade completely, and to allow the creation of a "security corridor" between the coastal territory and the West Bank.

Speaking to journalists in Ramallah several hours after their meeting, Fayyad said he had asked Barak to put an end to Israeli military raids into Palestinian homes, and to allow Palestinian forces greater freedom of operation in the West Bank.

In their first meeting in two months, held at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, Fayyad told Barak that "a quick solution to these two issues is very important to beginning to develop the feeling of establishing a state." Fayyad said Barak had promised him that "the issues raised will be examined seriously, and there will be clear answers to each of them."

Officials in Ramallah said yesterday that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not intend to renew direct talks with Israel as long as proximity talks fail to yield tangible results on borders and security arrangements.

The officials said Abbas will be unable to agree to direct talks should construction resume after the expiration of the settlement construction freeze.