Obama and Netanyahu to mend fences

The UK and Israel have smoothed out their differences in recent weeks after discord over settlement policy strained the alliance.

WASHINGTON // Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Barack Obama today hoping to repair a strained relationship and firm up Israel's alliance with the United States at a time when Israel has been increasingly isolated by international criticism.

The fifth meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the US president had been scheduled to take place on June 1, but Mr Netanyahu cancelled the sit-down to deal with the fallout after Israel's raid on an aid flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip killed nine activists and sparked fury in the Arab world. Mr Netanyahu's last visit to the White House, in March, ended in disagreement and revealed how dysfunctional his relationship with Mr Obama had become after a year of clashes over Israeli settlement policy. The meeting was closed to photographers and the two men did not appear together in public or issue a joint statement. The unusual treatment for a visiting prime minister was interpreted by some as a deliberate snub.

Today's meeting is expected to go more smoothly, reflecting efforts by both sides in recent weeks to downplay the friction and emphasise areas of mutual agreement. The leaders are scheduled to hold a joint press conference, appear for a photo, and Mr Netanyahu is to be treated to a White House lunch, senior administration officials said. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, dismissed doubts about the health of the US-Israel partnership, telling reporters in a conference call on Friday that the relationship is in a "very good place".

"There is absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel," he said. Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu have found more common ground of late. After the deadly flotilla raid, the White House affirmed Israel's right to self-defence and resisted calls by other world leaders to condemn Israel's actions. The administration also has backed Israel's inquiry into the raid and praised the government's decision to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip, which came at the request of the United States.

The gap between the two leaders' approaches on Iran also has narrowed since the early days of Mr Obama's presidency, when Israeli officials were wary of US diplomatic overtures. Aggressive US efforts to isolate Iran - including months of diplomacy to secure the approval of new UN sanctions - have played well in Israel. Still, questions remain about whether the two leaders see eye to eye on the peace process.

An Obama administration official recently told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the United States wants Israel to exhibit more "seriousness" in talks on core issues. "We want things to move faster," the official said. "To date there has been insufficient progress." Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said after meetings with top US officials last month that Israel is being urged to "take risks" to restore momentum to the peace process. US officials "want to see an Israel that takes its security seriously but is ready to take risks to advance an assertive peace process," he told The Jerusalem Post.

Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said that although US officials have softened their rhetoric in public, intense diplomacy and debate will probably continue behind closed doors. "It's almost the exact opposite of what the Obama administration did in its first year," he said. "In public we see the good cop; in private, we may be seeing the bad cop."

Mr Brown said fundamental differences remain between the two leaders' vision for a future Palestinian state and that such differences were unlikely to be reconciled during the White House talks. "I think there will be an effort to keep things friendly, warm and polite, but I don't think there is any possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front," he said. On Friday, Daniel Shapiro, Mr Obama's senior director for the Middle East, said the White House has been "encouraged" by progress being made through five rounds of proximity talks.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, gave a much grimmer assessment to Israeli newspapers. "We haven't received from Netanyahu even a single sign that might indicate progress," he was quoted as saying by the Maariv daily. Mr Netanyahu's 10-month moratorium on settlement activity is due to expire in September, and Likud Party members already have approved plans to resume housing construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The expiring freeze raises the prospect of additional political setbacks and more discord with the United States.

Mr Obama's next goal may be to persuade the Israeli prime minister to extend the freeze, according to Steven Cook, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank. "It will be interesting to see how the administration approaches that," he said. "That may be the next fight." sstanek@thenational.ae