President Obama has delayed his trip to Indonesia and Australia to deal with health care, but has not committed to any meetings with Israeli leaders who are scheduled to be in Washington next week and are perhaps hoping to repair what many observers are calling a mis-step between the U.S. and Israel over settlements and a trip to the region by the Vice President.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be in the United States for the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) meeting. With President Obama scheduled to be overseas the two leaders were not supposed to have any face-to-face meetings. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said with the sudden change in the President's schedule for next week, the White House hasn't been able to nail down anything but told reporters the administration is still committed to the issue of peace in the Middle East.
"Our focus for the past several days has been on restarting the proximity talks and calling on both sides to take steps to return to the table and to refrain from any type of actions or announcements that would undermine the trust that's necessary to get them there. That's what our focus is," Gibbs said.
Secretary of State Clinton who is in Moscow for a Quartet meeting, has taken the step of speaking with Netanyahu in advance of what could be potential meetings in the United States next week. A Senior State Department official traveling with Clinton says the two discussed "specific steps that might be taken to promote peace" but the official did not elaborate. The State Department also put out a paper statement about the phone call.
"They [Netanyahu and Clinton] discussed specific actions that might be taken to improve the atmosphere for progress toward peace. We are going to review the PM's response and continue our discussions with both sides to keep proximity talks moving forward. Senator Mitchell will visit the region later this weekend to meet with President Abbas and PM Netanyahu," the statement reads.
According to Israeli newspapers, the conversation was to include an explanation to Clinton of Israel's steps following the crisis regarding the building in Jerusalem. Israeli newspapers also said only after that conversation would it be determined if Netanyahu will meet with senior administration officials when he travels to Washington.
Late last week, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Clinton had telephoned Netanyahu and told the Prime Minister his announcement of building when Biden was in the country was "deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship ... and had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process," Crowley said. "She made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process."
The proximity talks, a step taken by Israel and the Palestinians to engage in "indirect talks" with United States intermediaries are scheduled to begin this weekend when Former Senator George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy to the region visits the Middle East for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"We've had many conversations in recent days with the Israelis and Palestinians. We do know what they're thinking. The question is whether both sides are ready to put actions behind their words and show a willingness to tackle the core issues and also avoid any steps that we feel would inhibit progress being made, " Crowley told reporters earlier Thursday while traveling with Secretary of State Clinton in Moscow, Russia.
Meanwhile, Israel's top diplomat in the United States says any reports that quoted him as saying that United States-Israel relations are at a low point are untrue.
Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States wrote in the New York Times that "even the closet allies can sometimes disagree" and goes on to say a "disagreement" began last week during Vice President Joseph Biden's trip last week when a lower level Israeli official announced a new planning and expansion phase in a northern Jerusalem neighborhood.
"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no desire during a vice presidential visit to highlight longstanding differences between the United States and Israel on building on the other side of the 1949 armistice line that once divided Jerusalem. The prime minister repeatedly apologized for the timing of the announcement and pledged to prevent such embarrassing incidents from recurring. In reply, the Obama administration asked Israel to reaffirm its commitment to the peace process and to its bilateral relations with the United States. Israel is dedicated to both," Oren writes in the Op-ed.
Middle East experts say that no matter what Oren says, it was still an announcement of future housing development and was an insult to Vice President Biden. And if Netanyahu is hoping for a one-on-one meeting with President Obama, that may not help.
"A meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu only makes sense if the two governments reach an understanding on the Jerusalem housing issue and restarting Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks. Otherwise it's a set up for more public friction, which neither Obama nor Netanyahu can afford," Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells Fox.
Sources on the Middle East say the stakes are much higher for the United States in the region, with the U.S. dealing with many moving parts including nuclear issues in Iran and wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while Israel only has to engage in indirect talks with a U.S. negotiator shuttling back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah.