- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2010

UPDATED:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a warmer public reception from Congress than from the Obama administration, with a top Democrat and top Republican joining Tuesday to welcome a leader who has agreed to disagree with the White House over Israeli housing expansion on disputed ground.

“We in Congress stand by Israel,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, assured Mr. Netanyahu at an all-smiles appearance before the cameras. “In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama later Tuesday will be closed to journalists, leaving the impression he was not comfortable being seen or photographed with top administration officials. The Obama administration appears eager to let Mr. Netanyahu’s awkwardly timed visit pass with as little public remark as possible, and has refused to detail what promises Mr. Netanyahu is making to ease the most serious diplomatic breach between the two nations in decades.

The abrupt rescheduling of Mr. Netanyahu’s planned trip to the State Department for what had been billed as a public meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday underscored the uneasy atmosphere. Mr. Netanyahu’s meeting with Mrs. Clinton took place at his hotel and was closed to the press.

It was followed by a private dinner at Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s residence on Monday night that was meant to salve hurt feelings from two weeks ago, when Mr. Netanyahu’s government announced a provocative housing expansion in east Jerusalem while Mr. Biden was visiting the city. Angry and embarrassed, Mr. Biden reportedly was 90 minutes late for a dinner with Mr. Netanyahu following the announcement. The rift widened, and both nations are now trying to move on without backing down.

“We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world than Israel,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “We all know we’re in a difficult moment. I’m glad the prime minister is here so we can have an open dialogue.”

Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Boehner both pointed to the threat from Iran as a top concern, as well as an area in which the United States will cooperate with Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu thanked his congressional hosts for what he called warm, bipartisan support. He also spoke with, among others, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican; Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, who is House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman; Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat; and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent.

“We face two great challenges,” Mr. Netanyahu said, a “quest for peace with our Palestinian neighbors” and stopping Iran from developing atomic weapons.

Mr. Netanyahu has been trying to deflect U.S. criticism of his government’s plans for 1,600 housing units in a part of Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as their own. He bluntly asserted before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday evening that “Jerusalem is not a settlement — it’s our capital.”

Mrs. Clinton told a pro-Israel AIPAC audience earliler Monday that Israeli expansion in areas claimed by the Palestinians is not in Israel’s long-term interests and undermines U.S. credibility as a mediator in the Mideast peace process.

Mr. Obama has remained out of the fray as Mrs. Clinton and other U.S. officials have rebuked Israel.

After strong statements on both sides, the Obama administration and the Netanyahu camp struck a stance of relative silence Tuesday.

P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, lifting the curtain a bit to the Associated Press, said: “This is a process with give-and-take, and that is exactly what is happening. We laid out our concerns, and the Israelis have laid out their concerns, and we continue discussions with both parties.”

Mr. Crowley said that public stance would be maintained. “We are not going to talk about the precise steps both sides have to take. We will continue to discuss those steps privately,” he said.

AP diplomatic writer Barry Schweid contributed to this report.

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