US President Barack Obama is meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House later today, his first meeting with the Israeli leader since the recent spat over Israel’s announcement of new housing construction for east Jerusalem.
However, the afternoon meeting will be closed to reporters, an unusual choice when hosting a close ally and a sign that suggested the rift may not be entirely healed.
Mr Obama has remained out of the fray as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other US officials have rebuked Israel for its announcement of new construction in Jerusalem, which came while Vice President Joe Biden visited the country.
It embarrassed Biden, a staunch supporter of Israel, and led to new stress in relations between Washington and its top Middle Eastern ally.
Yesterday, Mr Clinton and Mr Netanyahu presented duelling positions on Jerusalem construction while simultaneously suggesting the incident is behind them.
Israel’s announcement of new housing plans for east Jerusalem, the part of the city Palestinians want for a future capital, drew unusually sharp criticism from the Obama administration.
Mrs Clinton renewed that disapproval yesterday, telling a pro-Israel audience that provocative Israeli land policies in areas claimed by the Palestinians are not in Israel’s long-term interests and undermine US credibility as a mediator.
Speaking later in the day to a crowd of nearly 8,000 pro-Israel activists at the same forum, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), including hundreds of congressmen and senators, Mr Netanyahu did not budge from his position that building anywhere in Jerusalem is an Israeli right.
But at the same time both sides appeared to be indicating that while differences may remain, the spat – unique in recent memory for its harsh rhetoric and public nature – should not be allowed to further mar ties or delay the launch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
In her speech, Mrs Clinton said the spread of Jewish homes on land claimed by the Palestinians threatens the Obama administration’s first attempts at shuttle diplomacy intended to establish an independent Palestinian state, and makes it hard for the US to be an honest broker.
“Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally,” Mrs Clinton said, and also criticised Palestinian incitement to violence.
“New construction in east Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides want and need,” she said. “It exposes daylight between Israel and the US that others in the region hope to exploit.”
The AIPAC crowd responded with notably more enthusiasm to Mr Netanyahu’s assertion that Jews had been building in Jerusalem for 3,000 years and that Israel would continue to do so.
“Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital,” Mr Netanyahu said to a prolonged standing ovation.
The neighbourhoods Israel has built in east Jerusalem are an “inextricable” part of the city, the Israeli leader said, and will remain part of Israel under any peace agreement.
“Therefore, building in them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution,” he said.
He said that Israel does not want to rule over Palestinians, and called on Palestinian leaders to begin talks.
But despite the clashing positions, Israel and the US both appeared to signal that the spat should not further delay Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
In her speech, Mrs Clinton assured Israel that the US administration’s commitment to its security and future is “rock solid”, and after she met the Israeli leader Monday, Israeli officials termed the talks “friendly” and said both the US and Israel were interested in leaving the rift behind and getting talks started quickly.
Mrs Clinton said talks with Mr Netanyahu on action Israel can take to restore confidence were under way.
Mr Netanyahu has outlined what his government is willing to do, and some Israeli officials say that while there will be no formal building freeze, construction may be restricted, as in a partial 10-month West Bank construction freeze that Mr Netanyahu has already enacted.
The steps have not been made public, but officials say another element is agreement to discuss all outstanding issues in the indirect talks that the US is to mediate. Those would include the future of Jerusalem, borders, Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees.
Mrs Clinton got loud approval when she talked tough on Iran – an issue on which there is more agreement between Israel and the US. Both countries believe that Iran wants nuclear weapons, that it could be able to develop them soon and that such weapons would pose a grave threat.
The secretary said the Obama administration would not accept a nuclear armed Iran and is working on sanctions “that will bite” as a deterrent.
In his speech, Mr Netanyahu said that should Iran obtain nuclear weapons, “Our world would never be the same.”