Obama, Netanyahu Confer At White House

President Obama met Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to talk about a number of issues, many of which have served to drive a wedge between them.

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The question of peace in the Middle East was back on the table today at the White House. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Obama for the first time since March. That last meeting ended with a wide perception that the president was snubbing the Israeli prime minister. This time both sides made it a point to demonstrate a warm relationship, at least in public.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu met for more than an hour in the Oval Office. Afterwards, at a carefully choreographed photo opportunity, the two leaders presented a picture of unity, smiling and looking each other in the eye as they shook hands in front of the cameras. This cordial scene is exactly what officials from both administrations were hoping and planning for, especially after the last meeting when there were no pictures, no questions, no public statements.

This time, they took great pains to dispel any notion that there was a rift in their relationship. Netanyahu paraphrased Mark Twain.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): The reports about the demise of the special U.S.-Israel relations - relationship aren't just premature, they're just flat wrong.

NORTHAM: Both leaders talked about the depth and the richness of the ties between Israel and the U.S., saying the bond is unbreakable and they said they had excellent discussions. A key topic: Middle East peace negotiations. Mr. Obama said there had been some confidence building measures recently that helped improved chances of resuming direct peace talks, including Israel's decision to ease a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip.

President BARACK OBAMA: I commended Prime Minister Netanyahu on the progress that's been made in allowing more goods into Gaza. We've seen real progress on the ground. I think it's been acknowledged that it has moved more quickly and more effectively than many people anticipated. Obviously, there's still tensions and issues there that have to be resolved.

NORTHAM: Israel came under heavy international pressure to loosen the Gaza blockade, following it's deadly commando attack in May on an aid flotilla trying to break the embargo. Scott Lasensky, a specialist on U.S.-Mid East policy at the United States Institute for Peace, says the summit between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu would have a different tone if it had taken place before the flotilla incident.

Mr. SCOTT LASENSKY (Senior Research Associate, United States Institute of Peace): In the wake of that affair, Israel has been subjected to unrelenting international criticism. And I think Prime Minister Netanyahu comes to Washington today a bit humbled and also deeply appreciative of the Obama administration's efforts - and they've been constant - to try to mitigate this campaign to isolate Israel.

NORTHAM: Lasensky says that gratitude may help restore confidence in the bilateral relationship, which in turn may help Netanyahu take some risks in peace talks with the Palestinians. Over the past few months, a U.S. envoy has been shuttling between the two sides in what are known as proximity talks.

Both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu want to see a resumption of direct talks, and the Israeli leader said that could happen soon.

Prime Minister NETANYAHU: 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. This is what we focused our conversation on. And when I say the next few weeks, that's what I mean. The president means that too.

NORTHAM: Analysts here say the real test will come in September when a partial Israeli freeze on settlement building in the West Bank is due to expire. That's a key issue for the Palestinians. The Israeli leader has not yet said whether he will extend the moratorium in September. Mr. Obama said he hopes face-to-face negotiations will already have begun by then.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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