US and Israel ‘narrowing the gaps’ in rocky relationship

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to warm rocky relations yesterday – declaring after a White House meeting that any talk of a rift is unfounded.

Obama said the US-Israeli bond is unbreakable.

The president had praise for his guest, hailing as “real progress” Israel’s recent decision to ease its three-year blockade of the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip.

He also said he believes Netanyahu wants peace with the Palestinians and is serious about resuming the face-to-face Middle East peace talks that broke off in December 2008.

The Israeli leader pledged “we’re committed” to peace with the Palestinians and said any reports of the demise of the US-Israeli relationship are “flat wrong”.

Netanyahu and Obama talked in the White House Oval Office as protesters gathered across the street in Lafayette Park and chanted “No More Aid, End the Blockade”, referring to the Gaza Strip.

The meeting between Obama and Netanyahu was their first since a troubled White House meeting between them in March. It followed Israel’s surprise announcement of plans for new construction in east Jerusalem as US vice president Joe Biden was in Israel and preparing for dinner with the prime minister.

On Sunday Netanyahu endorsed the US call for direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Addressing his cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said the “time has come” for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to get ready to meet 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 Obama sounded a hopeful tone late last week, telling reporters that weeks of shuttle diplomacy between the two sides by George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, had paid off and “the gaps have narrowed”.

Obama and Netanyahu are also expected to discuss Israel’s decision yesterday 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.

Obama and Netanyahu are likely to discuss efforts to end Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit, including sanctions Obama signed into law last week.

Yesterday’s meeting was the fifth between Obama and Netanyahu and would make up for a scheduled June 1 session at the White House that Netanyahu cancelled to deal with fallout from the Gaza flotilla raid.

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

One big sticking point in resuming direct talks between the sides 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 Netanyahu until he agrees to freeze construction in Palestinian areas. Israel recently said it has no intention of doing that.

Abbas said last week 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.


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