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President Obama will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later today. The closed door meeting between the two leaders comes a day after the Israeli prime minister vowed to continue building new housing in a disputed area of Jerusalem.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Prime Minister Netanyahu's invitation to meet with President Obama came at the last minute, just about the time the Israeli leader was getting on a plane bound for a three day trip to Washington.
It will be a low-profile meeting between the two men - no cameras, no public statements. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says the thrust of the meeting will be getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I think the president is hopeful that we will, in this meeting, make progress and get - without getting into the intricacies of it - get these two parties not just back physically to talks, but to the type of relationship that is necessary for those talks to bear fruit.
NORTHAM: But Netanyahu's visit comes after the Obama administration sharply criticized Israel's decision to build 1,600 homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, an area Palestinians claim as their future capital. That decision frayed relations between the U.S. and its strongest ally in the Middle East.
To wide applause, Prime Minister Netanyahu defended the decision during a speech to the pro-Israeli group AIPAC in Washington.
Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
Prime Minister NETANYAHU: Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital.
(Soundbite of applause)
NORTHAM: Palestinian officials insist that Israel's decision to continue building in and around East Jerusalem will keep them from the negotiating table. Still, Netanyahu was defiant, claiming that building anywhere in Jerusalem is Israel's right.
Prime Minister NETANYAHU: Americans, Europeans, Israelis certainly, Palestinians - everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement.
(Soundbite of applause)
Prime Minister NETANYAHU: And therefore, building in them in no way precludes the possibility of a twos-state solution.
NORTHAM: But the Obama administration says Israel's decision to construct more Jewish housing near Jerusalem jeopardizes current U.S. efforts to get indirect or proximity talks going between Israel and the Palestinians.
During her speech to AIPAC, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored the administration's opposition to Israel's housing policy, saying getting both sides to the negotiating table requires trust.
Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first steps toward the full negotiations that both sides say they want and need. And it exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit.
NORTHAM: While Clinton condemned Israel's expansion of its Jewish settlements, she also expressed solidarity over Iran. She said there is no greater strategic threat for Israel than a nuclear-armed Iran and that the Obama administration is working on sanctions against Iran that, quote, "will bite."
Iran's suspect nuclear program was a major theme at the opening day of the AIPAC conference, and one that Netanyahu picked up on and will likely bring to today's meeting with President Obama.
Netanyahu said Iran's bid to develop nuclear weapons is first and foremost a threat to Israel.
Prime Minister NETANYAHU: Israel thus expects the international community to act swiftly and to act decisively to thwart this danger. But we always reserve the right of self-defense.
(Soundbite of applause)
NORTHAM: So far President Obama has publicly kept quiet about the recent diplomatic spat between Israel and the U.S. And given the press blackout, it's unlikely details about today's private meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu will emerge.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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