IPS NEWS AGENCY
WASHINGTON — Insisting that the bond between their two nations was "unbreakable", U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu emerged all smiles from their long-awaited White House meeting here Tuesday.
Speaking before reporters, the two men, whose last encounter here in March appeared to confirm a crisis in bilateral ties, lavished compliments on each other.
"[T]he fact of the matter is, is that I've trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president," declared Obama before the two leaders were joined by their top aides for a working lunch.
In particular, Obama praised Netanyahu "on the progress that's been made in allowing more goods into Gaza" in the wake of international outrage directed against Israel's lethal May 31 attack on a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian goods to the besieged Palestinian territory, and on his "willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians around what I think should be the goal ...of two states living side-by-side in peace and security".
And he reassured the Israeli leader that Washington's policy on Israel's nuclear weapons program has not changed despite the U.S. decision in April not to oppose a consensus by parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) calling on the Jewish state to join the pact.
"I reiterated to the prime minister that there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues," Obama said. "We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it's in, and the threats that are leveled ...against it, that Israel has unique security requirements."
An official White House readout of the meeting released later Tuesday said Obama had told Netanyahu that "he recognizes that ...only Israel can determine its security needs".
For his part, Netanyahu expressed satisfaction with Washington's role last month in persuading other members of the U.N. Security Council to impose a fourth round of sanctions against Iran, insisting that they "create delegitimization for Iran's nuclear program". He also praised new unilateral U.S. sanctions signed into law by Obama last week, adding that they "actually have teeth. They bite."
"(T)he reports about the demise of the special U.S.-Israel relationship aren't just premature; they're just flat wrong," said Netanyahu.
Tuesday's meeting, which was originally to have taken place Jun. 2 but was rescheduled when Netanyahu rushed back home from a visit to Canada to deal with the diplomatic crisis that followed the attack on the flotilla, appeared designed to serve the domestic political interests of both principals.
Obama has been eager to shore up support, particularly for Democratic candidates in November's mid-term Congressional elections, in the Jewish community which, despite its small size, accounts for as much as 40 percent of all campaign contributions to the party.
The contretemps in March — which began when Jerusalem's municipal authorities announced a settlement project during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden and culminated with a White House decision to ban photos of Obama's meeting with Netanyahu two weeks later — was seized on by Republicans as evidence of the president's insensitivity or hostility to Israel. Unnerved, a number of influential liberal Jewish leaders and Democratic lawmakers pressed the administration to "kiss and make up" with Netanyahu.
"From a diplomatic perspective, this was a meaningless PR exercise that simply confirms the degree to which Obama remains beholden to the 'status quo' lobby," said Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor on international relations and co- author of "The Israel Lobby".
"It's designed to show that U.S-Israeli relations are still just fine and intended to keep 'pro-Israel' dollars flowing into the Democratic Party's coffers in the run-up to the November mid-terms," he added.
Netanyahu was similarly concerned that the perception of a major rift with Washington, Israel's closest ally and supporter by far for nearly 50 years, could cost him politically at home.
Moreover, the flotilla fiasco, in which eight Turkish civilians and one dual Turkish-American citizen were killed by Israeli commandos who seized the ship in international waters, served only to deepen Israel's international isolation and heighten the strategic importance to Israel of Washington's continued backing.
"Both sides have a strong interest in this meeting being seen as putting the troubles behind us," said one administration official who deals with Middle East issues before Tuesday's talks.
In their public remarks, both leaders exhorted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to enter into direct peace talks with Netanyahu as soon as possible. Obama's Special Envoy George Mitchell has so far held five sessions of "proximity talks" between the two sides.
Abbas, who met with Obama at the White House last month, has said the talks have not yet made sufficient progress on key issues to warrant direct talks, and the president's efforts to persuade Saudi King Abdullah, whom he hosted here just last week, to press the Palestinian leader on the issue reportedly fell short.
Washington is particularly worried that a lack of tangible progress — including initiating direct talks — by mid- September will likely raise tensions throughout the region. Netanyahu would likely come under heavy pressure from his own Likud Party and its far-right partners in his government to end his moratorium on Jewish settlement activity on the West Bank, and Arab League backing for proximity talks will expire at the same time.
"(My) hope is ...that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success," said Obama, who also hailed what he called the Israeli government's "restraint" in settlement activity over the past several months.
He also suggested that Washington wants Netanyahu to permit the PA's U.S.-trained and -equipped security forces to control a broader area in the West Bank as a key confidence- building measure that could help entice Abbas into direct talks in the coming weeks.
While Obama insisted that he believed Netanyahu was "prepared" to work toward a peace settlement that included a "sovereign state" for the Palestinians, however, Netanyahu was far more vague. He spoke about his eagerness to "explore the possibility of peace" and insisted on the importance of achieving a "secure peace" that would not "repeat ...the situation (in Gaza) where we vacate territories, and those are taken by Iran's proxies and used as launching ground for terrorist or rocket attacks."
Instead, Netanyahu focused his remarks on the importance of implementing sanctions against Iran which he described as "the greatest new threat on the horizon".
One analyst said Obama's remarks appeared designed in part to establish linkage between progress on the Palestinian- Israeli front and further pressure on Iran.
"Obama was saying he's now delivered on tough sanctions on Iran, and he's pressing Netanyahu on what he's going to do in return," said Steve Clemons, head of the American Strategy program at the New America Foundation. "He's is trying to be a calculating deal-maker and push the reset button with Netanyahu. If Netanyahu doesn't respond, things could get much worse."
*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.