Politics

White House Keeps Public in the Dark About Obama-Netanyahu Meeting

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs refused to provide details of Tuesday night's secretive meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the administration was "comfortable" with the encounter being held away from the gaze of the press. 

The meeting came at a tense time and may have ended without any major breakthroughs, given that the two heads of state had nothing to announce after spending two hours together in two meetings. 

"The president has asked the prime minister for certain things to build confidence leading up to (indirect) talks (with the Palestinians) that we think can make progress," Gibbs said Wednesday. "These are discussions that are ongoing." 

He called the discussion "honest and straightforward" and said the administration had nothing to hide about the meeting. 

"Not everything the president does is for the cameras and for the press," Gibbs said. 

But information about the high-level meeting has been unusually elusive. Journalists were not allowed in to see them shake hands and begin, and officials had to little to say about what happened after the fact. 

All they would describe was the sequence of the encounter: Obama and Netanyahu met for about 90 minutes before Obama returned to the White House residence. After Netanyahu continued to consult with his staff at the White House, he requested another meeting with Obama, who returned to the Oval Office to meet for another 35 minutes. 

Mideast envoy George Mitchell is meeting Netanyahu late Wednesday afternoon to try to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track.

At issue is Israel's announcement two weeks ago, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, 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. 

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 in 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 as a U.S. president wants to keep his distance. And it pointed to the limited options, beyond verbal rebukes, that the Obama administration has in pressuring the Jewish state. 

"We in Congress stand by Israel," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told 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 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. He is meeting with Netanyahu late Wednesday afternoon to try to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.