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Netanyahu's cancellation of meeting with Obama delays efforts to improve ties

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; 1:44 PM

The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to abruptly cancel Tuesday's White House meeting with President Obama delays an effort by the two leaders to move beyond their often rocky relationship.

Netanyahu canceled the U.S. visit following international condemnation of a raid on a vessel bound for the Gaza Strip in which at least nine international activists were killed. The Israeli leader was wrapping up a trip to Canada but cut the visit short to rush home.

Israeli officials have defended their actions, saying their soldiers were under attack. Initially, Israeli officials said Netanyahu would continue his diplomacy abroad, but that changed as the international reaction increased Monday.

"As this grew larger and larger in the region, [Netanyahu] realized that he had to be there in order to manage the fallout," a senior U.S. diplomat said Monday after being granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive incident.

White House officials said Obama and Netanyahu talked by phone Monday morning. In a statement, officials said Obama "understood the Prime Minister's decision to return immediately to Israel to deal with today's events. They agreed to reschedule their meeting at the first opportunity."

For Netanyahu, a meeting with Obama would have been a distraction from what appeared to be growing into a new international incident for Israel. At the White House, Obama aides were still assessing the situation Monday, issuing a cautious statement describing the president's call with Netanhayu.

"The President expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today's incident, and concern for the wounded, many of whom are being treated in Israeli hospitals," the statement said. "The President also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events as soon as possible."

White House officials had billed the Obama-Netanyahu meeting on Tuesday as primarily a discussion about security issues, including Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the recent conference on nuclear nonproliferation.

But the face-to-face discussion -- arranged by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel during a private family trip to Israel last week -- would have been an opportunity for the two men to discuss other issues where they have clashed, including the issue of settlement construction in Jerusalem.

In a transcript released by the U.S. Embassy in Israel, Emanuel told Netanyahu last week that the invitation was for "a work meeting to discuss both our shared security interests as well as our close cooperation in seeking peace between Israel and its neighbors."

The last time that Netanyahu came to the White House, he visited with Obama in the Oval Office for 90 minutes but did not pose for pictures with the president or hold a joint news conference. The issue of settlements dominated the discussions between Netanyahu and White House officials during that visit.

Earlier, Obama was described as angry when a surprise Israeli announcement of new settlements was made just as Vice President Biden was visiting the region.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who on Monday described the incident as a "slaughter" at sea, is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on June 9 to discuss efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler also contributed to this story.

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