Obama and Netanyahu focus on peace

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House today with the same goal: trying to re-energise Middle East peace talks.

Mr Netanyahu has backed the US call for direct talks between Israel and Palestinians, just days after White House officials said Mr Obama would push during the Oval Office session for those negotiations to get under way sooner rather than later.

Mr Netanyahu said the "time has come" for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to get ready to meet with the Israelis "because there is no other way to advance peace. I hope this will be one of the results of the visit to Washington."

Aides to Mr Obama sounded hopeful last week, saying that weeks of shuttle diplomacy between the two sides by George Mitchell, Mr Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, had paid off and "the gaps have narrowed."

"We believe there are opportunities to further narrow those gaps, to allow the sides to take that next step to direct talks," added Daniel Shapiro, the senior Middle East director at the National Security Council.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu also are expected to discuss Israel's decision to significantly ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip to let in most consumer goods. Israel's ban on exports from Gaza and limits on shipments of construction material remain.

Israel came under heavy international pressure, including from Mr Obama and other top US officials, to loosen its three-year-old land and naval blockade of the seaside territory following Israel's deadly May 31 military raid on a flotilla trying to break the embargo.

At the time, Mr Obama said the situation was "unsustainable." He called for a narrow blockade to bar weapons that Gaza's Hamas rulers could use against Israel while admitting items the territory's 1.5 million Palestinians need for daily living and economic development.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu also are likely to discuss efforts to end Iran's nuclear weapons pursuit, including sanctions Mr Obama signed into law last week. That legislation followed a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.

The meeting is the fifth between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu and makes up for a scheduled June 1 session at the White House that Mr Netanyahu cancelled to deal with fallout from the flotilla raid.

The session follows meetings Mr Obama held at the White House in recent weeks with key Middle East players, including Mr Abbas and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

It comes after a rocky White House meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu in March after Israel's surprise announcement of plans for new construction in east Jerusalem as Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel and preparing for dinner with the prime minister.

Getting both sides to resume direct talks, which broke off in December 2008, is a huge challenge. One big sticking point is Israel's continued construction of Jewish housing in east Jerusalem, an area the Palestinians claim as part of a hoped-for future state.

The Palestinians have refused to sit down with Mr Netanyahu until he agrees to freeze construction in areas they want for an independent state. Israel recently said it has no intention of doing so.

Mr Abbas said last week that the borders of a future Palestinian state and security relations with Israel are the two issues on the table. He said direct talks can resume if an agreement is reached on them.

Mr Obama has called on Jerusalem to halt settlement construction and on the Palestinians to show progress on security and inciting violence against Israel.

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