By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; A02
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered to take "concrete steps" toward advancing the moribund Middle East peace process, saying during a closely watched meeting at the White House on Tuesday that he expects direct negotiations with the Palestinians to begin in a matter of weeks.
"I think it's high time to begin direct talks," Netanyahu told reporters in the Oval Office.
His remarks came during a makeup session with President Obama, their first meeting since Israel raided an aid flotilla heading toward Gaza, straining relationships in the region and further complicating efforts to move the peace talks to the next phase. Obama embraced the offer, also saying that direct talks should begin in "weeks," before a freeze on Israeli settlement construction, a condition of the talks, is set to end on Sept. 26.
Several important deadlines are on the horizon: In addition to the expiration of the settlement moratorium, time is running out on the "proximity talks" between the Palestinians and Israelis, which are scheduled to last through September. And Turkey -- a onetime ally of Israel that has turned bitter since the flotilla raid, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed -- is poised to assume the leadership of the U.N. Security Council that month.
On Tuesday, Obama and Netanyahu were eager to demonstrate unity. The visit -- Netanyahu's fourth since Obama took office -- was carefully staged as a counterpoint to the closed-door meeting the two leaders held in March. White House officials did not arrange for that earlier visit to be photographed, a diplomatic slight that reflected Obama's displeasure with Israel's plans, announced in March as Vice President Biden was visiting the region, to build 1,600 housing units in a disputed area of Jerusalem.
This time, with camera shutters whirring around them, Obama sat alongside Netanyahu and challenged the notion of any rift between the allies. "If you look at every public statement that I've made over the last year and a half, it has been a constant reaffirmation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, that our commitment to Israel's security has been unwavering. And, in fact, there aren't any concrete policies that you could point to that would contradict that," Obama said. He acknowledged that Netanyahu has to make "difficult choices" and that the two have "robust discussions" from time to time.
"But the fact of the matter is that I've trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president, and have said so both publicly and privately," Obama said.
In fact, from the earlier settlement announcement to the May 31 flotilla raid, there had been multiple sources of tension between the two governments in recent months. But both sides played down any disagreements leading up to the White House visit, instead emphasizing areas of common ground and pointing to steps by Israel portrayed as conciliatory, including easing its long-standing blockade of items allowed into Gaza and taking disciplinary action against troops involved in Israel's military incursion into the territory in late 2008 and early 2009.
As for the peace process, Netanyahu did not indicate whether he will extend the moratorium on settlement construction, a condition laid out by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But Diana Buttu, a former negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said she thinks the talks will occur anyway. Whether they will yield sustainable results is another matter. Abbas, she said, is "going to face a real uphill battle" in trying to convince Palestinians of the value of direct talks. "Does it mean he won't try?" she said. "He probably will enter into negotiations even though people here just don't believe in them anymore."
Netanyahu may face similar resistance within his government. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said late last month that he saw "no chance" of a Palestinian state emerging by 2012, a target set by the United States and other international mediators.
After his meeting with Obama, which lasted 80 minutes, Netanyahu joined the president for a working lunch in the Roosevelt Room that included senior officials.
Having made so many trips to Washington, Netanyahu invited Obama and his family to visit Israel. "It's about time," the Israeli leader said. Obama said he looks forward to it.