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Obama, Netanyahu meet again

But that is not always how Democratic criticism is perceived. Israeli Ambassador Michael B. Oren said some moves in recent months, including a letter critical of the Gaza blockade signed by 54 congressional Democrats, have left the impression that Israel is "becoming a partisan issue," with Republicans being uniformly supportive where Democrats are not.

Obama administration officials say they are not looking at the matter through a narrow political prism. Instead, they said, the goal is to move the Middle East peace process forward, as well as to pursue goals the United States has in common with Israel, such as Iran.

Israel's concerns over whether Iran is secretly attempting to build a nuclear weapon are strong enough that its officials have said military action against Iran remains open. The Obama administration remains committed to a strategy of using sanctions to compel Iran to enter into negotiations over its program. Iran says its program is peaceful.

The meeting on Tuesday will focus on broad subjects rather than specific goals, White House officials said. The main item on the agenda will be to move toward direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, who have been conducting remote "proximity talks" in order to lay the groundwork for meeting face to face, senior administration officials said. Netanyahu has said he is willing to hold talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at any time; Abbas has set out preconditions for any talks.

The White House meeting will not dwell on some of the most difficult time-sensitive issues, including the expiration in September of a moratorium on Israeli settlement construction. "I think our focus, and the focus of this meeting, is very much going to be on making that transition into direct talks," said Daniel Shapiro, senior Middle East director at the National Security Council.

Shapiro also said there is no conflict between the two leaders. "In no way do we perceive a rift," he told reporters during a conference call.

The word "rift" has become a sensitive one in recent weeks after a report that Oren, the Israeli ambassador, had said a "tectonic rift" between the two countries was underway. Oren quickly said that the quote, which was reported secondhand from a closed-door meeting in Hebrew with diplomats, was incorrect and that he had been describing the Obama administration's "shift" toward Israel.

Oren also denied that photographers had been kept away from the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama in March. "There was no photograph last time because it was thrown together at the last minute," Oren said.

A senior U.S. official, however, said it had been part of a clear effort to put Netanyahu on notice that the announcement of new construction days earlier was not acceptable. The official also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

Whether a shift or a rift, both sides agree that the goal for Netanyahu and Obama this week is to display neither.

"Both of them, for their own reasons, want to try to end the recent ugliness," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. "But the fundamentals that led to that haven't changed. The United States has a big interest in advancing the peace process, in Gaza not dominating headlines in the Muslim world and radicalizing people from Morocco to Indonesia. And [Netanyahu] is not really very prepared to be flexible on those issues."

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the differences between Democrats and Republicans are closing for domestic political reasons.

"As we get closer to the midterm elections, if there was a gap, it's narrowing," he said. "I think the blowup in March between Obama and Netanyahu has led each side to realize that they've gone too far, and they've got to dial it down. Because there's too much at stake."

Democrats, Makovsky said, have put added pressure on the White House because it is "becoming a campaign issue with some of their constituents."

And thus, Oren predicted, this week's meeting will have different optics than in March. "We are going to have a lot of photographers," Oren said. Laughing, he added: "There are going to be more photographers there than at the Academy Awards."

Correspondent Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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