WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to warm rocky relations on Tuesday, declaring after a White House meeting that any talk of a rift is unfounded. Obama said the U.S.-Israeli bond is unbreakable.
“The United States is committed to Israel’s security,” Obama said as the two leaders addressed reporters in the Oval Office. “We are committed to that special bond. And we are going to do what’s required to back that up, not just with words, but with actions.”
For the Israeli leader’s part, Netanyahu said of solving years of strife with Palestinians: “We’re committed to that peace. I’m committed to that peace.” And he said that reports of the demise of the U.S.-Israeli relationship are “flat wrong.”
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, End the Blockade,” referring to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The meeting between Obama and Netanyahu was their first since a troubled White House get-together on March 23. That session was frosty, coming three weeks after Israel embarrassed Vice-President Joe Biden by announcing plans for new construction in east Jerusalem during his visit. The Palestinians expect east Jerusalem to be the capital of their eventual independent state.
Tuesday’s session was much friendlier than the one in March, when the White House kept Netanyahu out of sight of media coverage. This time, the leaders appeared together before reporters in the Oval Office and then went into a lengthy working lunch.
A critical topic was resuming the U.S.-mediated indirect peace talks. Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is ready to meet face to face with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but has given few indications of concessions he might be willing to make.
Specifically, he has rejected demands from Obama and the Palestinians for a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and a promise to resume negotiations from where they broke off under his more dovish predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu must choose between settlements and peace. “We want to resume direct negotiations, but the problem is that the land that is supposed to be a Palestinian state is being eaten up by settlements,” he told The Associated Press. He said the Palestinian demand that Israel halt all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and resume talks where they broke off in 2008 “are not conditions; these are obligations.”
Netanyahu endorsed on Sunday the U.S. idea to return to direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, just days after White House officials said Obama would push during the Oval Office session for those negotiations to get under way sooner rather than later.
Addressing his cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said the “time has come” for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to get ready to meet with the Israelis “because there is no other way to advance peace. I hope this will be one of the results of the visit to Washington.”
Aides to Obama sounded a hopeful tone late last week, telling reporters that weeks of shuttle diplomacy between the two sides by George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, had paid off and “the gaps have narrowed.”
“We believe there are opportunities to further narrow those gaps, to allow the sides to take that next step to direct talks,” added Daniel Shapiro, the senior Middle East director at the National Security Council.
Obama and Netanyahu also are expected to discuss Israel’s decision Monday to significantly ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip to let in most consumer goods. Israel’s ban on exports from Gaza and limits on shipments of construction material remain.
Israel came under heavy international pressure, including from Obama and other top U.S. officials, to loosen its 3-year-old land and naval blockade of the seaside territory after Israel’s deadly May 31 military raid on a flotilla trying to break the embargo.
At the time, Obama said the situation was “unsustainable.” He called for a narrow blockade to bar weapons that Gaza’s Hamas rulers could use against Israel while admitting items the territory’s 1.5 million Palestinians need for daily living and economic development.
Obama and Netanyahu also are likely to discuss efforts to end Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit, including sanctions Obama signed into law last week. That legislation followed a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran.
Tuesday’s meeting was the fifth between Obama and Netanyahu and would make up for a scheduled June 1 session at the White House that Netanyahu cancelled to deal with fallout from the flotilla raid.
The session follows meetings Obama held at the White House in recent weeks with major Mideast players, including Abbas and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Getting both sides to resume direct talks, which broke off in December 2008, is a huge challenge. One big sticking point is Israel’s continued construction of Jewish housing in east Jerusalem, an area the Palestinians claim as part of a hoped-for future state.
The Palestinians have refused to sit down with Netanyahu until he agrees to freeze construction in areas they want for an independent state. Israel recently said it has no intention of doing that.
Abbas said last week that the borders of a future Palestinian state and security relations with Israel are the two issues on the table. He said direct talks can resume if an agreement is reached on them.
Obama has called on Jerusalem to halt settlement construction and on the Palestinians to show progress on security and inciting violence against Israel.