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Obama, Netanyahu Hold Evening Talks


The talks came after Israel's recent announcement of plans to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for more than three hours at the White House, late Tuesday, amid unusual tensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship. The Obama administration has stressed the strength of the bilateral relationship despite controversy about the Israeli government's announcement that it will build new settlement housing in East Jerusalem and concerns about how to move Israel-Palestinian peace efforts forward:

Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived at the White House in cold and windy weather, perhaps reflective of the unsettled state of a normally warm bilateral relationship.

The White House issued no statement after the meeting, which stretched into mid-evening, but one is expected at the Wednesday news briefing by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

The White House had faced questions about why no public appearance or statements had been scheduled before or after the talks to demonstrate that relations might be on the mend.

Gibbs said, earlier this week, that the administration had already spoken clearly on the controversy about the Israeli government's announcement of new construction in mainly Arab East Jerusalem, a step that embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden during his recent visit.

During his two-day visit to Washington, Prime Minister Netanyahu also had a private meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a working dinner with Vice President Biden and President Obama's National Security Advisor General James Jones -- talks the White House described as productive and candid.

Before Tuesday's White House talks, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked about the level of U.S. satisfaction with the latest contacts: "Do we see eye-to-eye on everything? No. Are we satisfied with the exchange and the seriousness with which the prime minister has taken our concerns on board? We are," he said.

Welcoming Prime Minister Netanyahu to the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made no direct mention of bilateral tensions, saying both countries maintain an "open and candid dialogue".

A key focus of discussions there was Iran and its nuclear enrichment program. Pelosi suggested there is unity in Congress on next steps where Iran is concerned: "Together we remain committed to advancing the peace process, preserving Israel's security, responsible sanctions against Iran, [we are] working to finalize the Iran sanctions bill right now. We are working with the president to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," she said.

On the Israel-Palestinian issue, Mr. Netanyahu apparently delivered another firm message, with his spokesman saying he told U.S. lawmakers that Palestinian demands for a freeze on construction were illogical and unreasonable and could put any negotiations on hold for another year.

White House spokesman Gibbs this week had summarized for reporters President Obama's goal regarding efforts to bring Israel and Palestinians together for talks:

"Our goal in any of this is to create an atmosphere of trust and open dialogue to bring these two sides together so the discussions can be substantive in moving toward comprehensive Middle East peace," he said.

Israel's announcement during Vice President Biden's visit that it would construct 1,600 new homes in an area of occupied East Jerusalem triggered Palestinian refusal to begin indirect talks with Israel under U.S. mediation. Face-to-face talks have been suspended since 2008.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the Obama administration, saying that, although the Israeli move was "ill-timed" the United States should not have publicly condemned Israel about matters involving Jerusalem.

An aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday that statements Prime Minister Netanyahu made in Washington this week reaffirming Israel's intention to move ahead with new construction will not help U.S. efforts to bring the sides to indirect negotiations.

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