Easing Tension With Obama, Israeli Leader Will Push Talkshttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/
WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel used a fence-mending session with President Obama on Tuesday to say that he intends to take “concrete steps” in the coming weeks to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process “further along in a very robust way.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s comments, made in the Oval Office with Mr. Obama by his side, came after a 90-minute session — a highly symbolic meeting that both men hoped would project an image of unity after months of reports of tension and discord between them. Even the photograph of them was important: the last time they met at the White House, the mood was so sour that cameras were not allowed.
This time, the two men shook hands vigorously as Mr. Obama, who blamed the discord on exaggerated press reports, declared that “the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.” Mr. Netanyahu quoted Mark Twain, if a bit loosely.
“The reports about the demise of the special relationship aren’t just premature, they’re just flat wrong,” the prime minister said. He publicly invited Mr. Obama to visit Israel, and the president said, “I’m ready.”
The two leaders were not specific about what “concrete steps” Mr. Netanyahu could take to move the peace talks along, though Mr. Obama seemed to suggest a timetable when he said it was his hope that direct talks would begin “well before” a moratorium on settlement construction expires this fall. The president said he believed that Mr. Netanyahu was “willing to take risks for peace.” After weeks of American-brokered indirect talks, in which the administration’s special envoy, George J. Mitchell, has shuttled between the two sides, the White House has been eager to push the process forward so that the Israelis and Palestinians can talk directly. Mr. Netanyahu said over the weekend that a “main goal” of his session with Mr. Obama would be to advance direct talks.
The session was a make-up opportunity for the two leaders after months of rocky relations. And indeed, analysts say, there has already been some improvement. On Monday, the Israeli government took a step that pleased the Obama administration, announcing fresh details of its decision to ease its blockade of Gaza. On Tuesday, the Israeli military announced indictments of “a number of” officers and soldiers for their actions during Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9, suggesting a willingness to respond to criticism from human rights groups and others who have raised questions about Israel’s conduct.
At the same time, new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, imposed by the United States and other countries, have reassured Israelis, who have long been suspicious of Mr. Obama’s efforts to engage with Iran diplomatically.
Even so, Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator, said that Tuesday’s session at the White House reflected a “false calm” in the relationship.
“It’s symptomatic of the fact that neither man right now has a stake in a fight, a crisis, and both in fact have stakes in wanting to demonstrate that this relationship is functional,” Mr. Miller said, adding that he saw a “fundamental expectations gap” between the two leaders. He said Mr. Obama expects more from the peace talks than Mr. Netanyahu, whose fractious coalition includes far-right members opposed to negotiating with Palestinians, is likely to be able to deliver.
As much as it concerns substance, Mr. Netanyahu’s visit is also about establishing a level of trust between the two men personally. Monday’s appearance in the Oval Office contrasted sharply with the frosty reception Mr. Netanyahu received at the White House in March. A few weeks earlier, Israel had infuriated the Obama administration by approving plans for Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was in Israel.
Mr. Obama barred cameras from recording Mr. Netanyahu’s visit in March, and when their talks over the settlement issue hit an impasse, Mr. Obama walked out, leaving Mr. Netanyahu and his aides cooling their heels in the Roosevelt Room of the White House while the president went upstairs to have dinner with his wife and daughters.
The two leaders were supposed to meet again in early June, but Mr. Netanyahu canceled that session. He cut short a trip abroad and rushed back to Israel to deal with the crisis that erupted after Israeli forces attacked a humanitarian flotilla sailing to Gaza.
This time, Mr. Netanyahu is receiving, if not the red carpet treatment, at least the customary cordialities that the United States extends to friendly world leaders. The Star of David was flying Tuesday morning over Blair House, the president’s official guest residence, a sign that Mr. Netanyahu was staying there. In March he stayed blocks away at the Mayflower Hotel.And this time, meals will not be an issue; Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu shared a “working lunch” in the Cabinet Room after their Oval Office session.