Published March 24, 2010
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Tuesday in an unusual pair of low-profile meetings at the White House amid a serious dispute about settlement construction.
In a break with custom that seemed linked to the crisis complicating U.S.-Israel relations, reporters were not invited to see them shake hands and begin their talks. It is highly unusual for a visiting ally not to be seen with the president, either for photographs or statements.
At issue is Israel's announcement two weeks ago, as Vice President Joe Biden visited, that it will build 1,600 new apartments in east Jerusalem, the largely Arab section of the disputed holy city. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have delayed new U.S.-sponsored peace talks over what they say is an Israeli land grab.
Obama and Netanyahu initially conferred for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office -- a half-hour longer than scheduled. After that meeting, Obama retired to the residence while Netanyahu stayed behind in the White House to consult with his staff in the Roosevelt Room, a White House official said late Tuesday.
Netanyahu then asked for a second meeting with Obama, who came back downstairs to the Oval Office for another 35 minutes of talks with the prime minister, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue.
Although they met for a total of two hours, the White House did not issue a formal statement on what was discussed in either meeting, another break with custom. Israeli officials also had no comment.
Israel on Tuesday unveiled a grandiose plan for hotels, businesses and new housing for Palestinians in the center of east Jerusalem, but the announcement only brought Palestinian suspicion that it was an unacceptable payoff for new building in Jewish neighborhoods. The plan calls for developing a large area across from the Old City wall for tourism and commerce, as well as building 1,000 additional apartments.
On Capitol Hill, Netanyahu received a warm public reception from Congress on Tuesday, with a top Democrat and Republican joining to praise a leader who has refused to back down in a disagreement the White House says threatens new peace talks.
The bipartisan welcome underscored the breadth of congressional support for Israel even when a U.S. president wants to keep his distance. And it pointed to the limited options, beyond verbal rebukes, that the Obama administration faces in pressuring the Jewish state.
"We in Congress stand by Israel," the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., assured Netanyahu at an all-smiles appearance before the cameras. "In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted Netanyahu this week with a polite rebuke. Expansionist Israeli housing policies erode trust and the U.S. position as an honest broker, she said. Netanyahu's public reply came quickly: Jews have built their homes in Jerusalem for centuries and will continue, he told a pro-Israel audience.
U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell spent Sunday and Monday shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian officials. He returned to Washington for meetings on Tuesday but appeared to have made little headway with the Palestinians. The State Department said the administration had "seen progress" from Mitchell's discussion but gave no dates for the start of a new round of talks with Mitchell as go-between.
P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, told The Associated Press that the U.S. and Israel were currently engaged in "give and take."
"We are not going to talk about the precise steps both sides have to take. We will continue to discuss those steps privately," Crowley said.
There is no percentage for the Obama White House in taking on Israel too directly. Like lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Obama is mindful that American Jewish backers of Israel are traditionally reliable political supporters for Democrats.
Both nations are now trying to move on without backing down. But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers lavished praise on Israel.
"We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world than Israel," said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We all know we're in a difficult moment. I'm glad the prime minister is here so we can have an open dialogue."
Pelosi and Boehner both pointed to the threat from Iran as a top concern and an area in which the United States will cooperate with Israel. Netanyahu thanked his congressional hosts for what he called warm, bipartisan support.
"We face two great challenges," Netanyahu said, a "quest for peace with our Palestinian neighbors" and stopping Iran from developing atomic weapons.
Obama has remained out of the fray as Clinton and other U.S. officials have rebuked Israel.
Netanyahu's visit was planned before the housing dispute, and the Obama administration appears eager to let the awkwardly timed visit pass with as little public remark as possible. Both countries are eager to defuse the tensions but have refused to detail what promises Netanyahu is making to ease the most serious diplomatic breach between the two nations in decades.
In his meeting with Pelosi, Netanyahu said Israel had been building in east Jerusalem since the 1967 Mideast war, when it captured the West Bank from Jordan and would continue, according to Netanyahu's office.
The United States and other would-be international peacemakers have never recognized Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem and equate the Jewish concentrations there with Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The West Bank would make up the bulk of a future Palestinian state, and Palestinians claim that Jewish building leaves them with less space and undesirable or unworkable borders.
The Palestinian demand for a halt to building in Jerusalem as a precondition for peace talks, Netanyahu said, will serve only to delay peace talks further. Netanyahu said the sides "must not be trapped by an unreasonable and illogical demand."
Tensions between the U.S. and it main Mideast ally were palpable on Monday when Netanyahu abruptly rescheduled the venue and format of a meeting with Clinton. Instead of seeing her before photographers at the State Department, Netanyahu had Clinton come to his hotel suite for a private, one-on-one talk without aides present, U.S. officials said.
That was followed by a private dinner at Vice President Joe Biden's home that was meant to salve hurt feelings. Biden was visiting Jerusalem when Netanyahu's government announced the major building plan. Netanyahu said he was unaware of the move, blaming low-level bureaucrats, but Biden condemned the step in a written statement and Clinton followed up with an angry phone call to the prime minister.