- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2010

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came together in a very public setting Tuesday to play down reports of a rift, using a visit to the White House by the Israeli leader to reaffirm the special bond between the countries even amid recent dust-ups.

Mr. Netanyahu promised “concrete steps” on direct peace talks with Palestinians in the coming weeks, but for the most part the leaders offered no new details or deadlines on thorny issues such as Israel’s policy on expanding settlements or the resumption of direct peace talks with the Palestinians.

But both sides had a lot riding on the meeting, according to analysts, one of whom described it as a public “time-out” after a slew of high-profile disagreements and perceived slights.

“The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable. It encompasses our national security interests, our strategic interests, but most importantly the bond of two democracies who share a common set of values and whose people have grown closer and closer as time goes on,” Mr. Obama, seated beside Mr. Netanyahu, told a group of reporters in the Oval Office.

The scene was in sharp contrast to Mr. Netanyahu’s March visit, which was conducted entirely behind closed doors, with neither a working lunch nor any joint time with the press, a traditional staple when a head of state visits.

The atmosphere of that visit prompted many observers in Israel and the U.S. to conclude that Mr. Obama was punishing Mr. Netanyahu for allowing an expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. The Netanyahu government announced the expansion during a trip to Israel by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Tuesday’s meeting also marked the first time the two men have met face to face since a deadly Israeli raid on a flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip a month ago. That raid, which drew international condemnation but which Israel said was necessary to enforce its blockade of Gaza, forced Mr. Netanyahu to put off a planned June 1 White House visit.

The two leaders were the picture of friendship on Tuesday, hitting back against reports of chilly relations. Mr. Obama at one point said a reporter was “wrong” in saying that he distanced himself from Israel in the past year, and Mr. Netanyahu similarly rejected such reports as “just flat wrong.”

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser at the State Department, said it was clear from the meeting that both leaders had a “major stake” in avoiding another hiccup and played it safe by not pushing too far.

“This was a time-out, basically. I think these guys got out of bed and said to each other one morning, ‘What am I fighting with this guy for?’” said Mr. Miller, now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “The question is, where is the time-out leading, and we don’t know the answer to that yet.”

Indeed, neither leader provided new details on the prospect for direct talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, moving beyond so-called “indirect” talks conducted through U.S. diplomats. But Mr. Netanyahu said he plans to take “concrete steps” in the coming weeks to “move the peace process further along in a very robust way.”

Mr. Obama said he thinks Mr. Netanyahu is “willing to take risks for peace” and said the effort will require a series of confidence-building measures to set the stage for cooperation. But, he stressed, the U.S. will “never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.”

Asked about a partial Israeli moratorium on the construction of new settlements in the West Bank, set to expire in September, Mr. Obama praised the Israeli government for showing “restraint” over recent months and suggested that direct talks will result in more trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

He also praised Israel for easing its blockade to allow more consumer goods into the Gaza Strip, calling the move “real progress.” Israel instituted the blockade to prevent military supplies and other aid from getting to the militant Hamas movement, which controls the Palestinian enclave.

On Iran’s nuclear programs, the two leaders said they will continue to pressure Tehran to honor international obligations and touted the latest round of U.N. sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama last week signed into law tougher unilateral sanctions against Iran passed by Congress.

Some administration critics say Mr. Obama could do more to support Israel.

In a commentary that appeared Tuesday in Politico, Reps. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, and Peter Roskam, Illinois Republican, called on the White House to pull the United States out of the U.N. Human Rights Council to protest an investigation of Israel over the flotilla raid, in which nine Turkish activists were killed.

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