WASHINGTON // Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu presented a united front at the White House yesterday, hoping to remove any lingering doubts about their personal chemistry and reaffirm the strength of the US-Israel relationship. The US president and the Israeli prime minister held wide-ranging talks on the Middle East peace process, Israel's easing of its blockade of the Gaza Strip and their mutual concern about Iran's nuclear programme.
But in the absence of any game-changing announcements, the major development appeared to be the display of unity between two leaders whose relationship has been strained by Israel's settlement policy. In a joint public appearance, Mr Netanyahu said reports of the "demise of the special relationship" between the US and Israel "are just flat wrong". Mr Obama said the US-Israel bond is "unbreakable" and rejected a reporter's suggestion that he has been "distancing" himself from Israel. "The premise of your question was wrong," he said. The leaders met in the Oval Office and then took a working lunch. Michelle Obama, meanwhile, hosted Sara Netanyahu for tea at the White House. Yesterday's meeting was meant to contrast sharply with Mr Netanyahu's visit to the White House in March, which took place without photographers. Many interpreted the cool reception then as a snub to the visiting prime minister meant to express the president's anger over Israel's announcement of plans to build Jewish homes in East Jerusalem. The announcement came during a visit to the region by the vice president, Joe Biden, and embarrassed the Obama administration as it pressured Israel to halt all settlement activity. Such frostiness was not evident yesterday, reflecting efforts on both sides in recent months to downplay any rift that exists between them. For Mr Netanyahu, a key goal of yesterday's visit was to restore trust and solidify Israel's relationship with its most important ally, observers said.
Mr Obama, meanwhile, has re-evaluated his stance toward Israel after a year of "tough love" diplomacy failed to push the peace process forward. The president also hopes improving relations with Mr Netanyahu will head off Republican criticism about his party's commitment to Israel ahead of the November mid-term elections. Mr Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008 election.
The two leaders focused on efforts to begin direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu has endorsed a US call for talks and said he is willing to meet with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, at any time. Mr Abbas, for his part, has refused to sit down with Mr Netanyahu in the absence of a permanent settlement freeze. Mr Obama yesterday praised Mr Netanyahu's position. "I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he's willing to take risks for peace," he said. Israel's 10-month moratorium on settlement construction will come to an end in September. The White House is thought to be seeking an extension of the moratorium, though Mr Netanyahu faces pressure from his right-wing coalition not to agree to one. Mr Obama yesterday said he hoped that direct talks would begin "well before" the September expiration date. He praised Israel's decision to ease its blockade of the Gaza strip, which Israel's says is necessary for security reasons. Just ahead of the prime minister's visit, the Israeli government published a list of items not permitted to enter Gaza, reversing a previous policy of only listing items that were specifically approved. The government also released a list of construction materials to be allowed entry into the Hamas-run territory, but only for projects approved by the Palestinian Authority and implemented and supervised by the international community. "We've seen real progress on the ground," Mr Obama said of the situation in Gaza. "I think it's been acknowledged that it has moved more quickly and more effectively than many people anticipated." In yet another move that is likely to quiet its critics, Israel announced plans yesterday to indict soldiers for their actions during Israel's incursion into Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009. Israel's conduct during the three-week offensive came under intense scrutiny after the so-called "Goldstone Report" was published by the United Nations last year. Mr Netanyahu praised the new UN and unilateral US sanctions against Iran, saying they contribute to the "delegitimisation" of the Islamic republic's nuclear programme.