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Obama, Netanyahu Working to Mend US Israeli Relationship

  • Meredith Buel

From the peace process with the Palestinians to Iran's nuclear program, U.S President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu covered a wide range of thorny issues during their recent meeting in Washington. Many analysts say the most important development to emerge from the talks was the apparent improvement in what had been a rocky relationship between the two leaders.

Personal invitations, smiles and handshakes helped set what many observers say was an overwhelmingly positive tone during Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to the Oval Office.

The meeting reflected a remarkable shift in a relationship that had been marred by significant disagreements on a variety of issues.

Robert Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

"The most important development was not any particular word or phrase, but the clear effort by the president to change the atmospherics of this relationship," said Mr. Satloff. "To change the perception of tension and crisis and give off the aura of good feelings between the United States and Israel."

While a single meeting at the White House is not likely to resolve 18 months of significant policy differences, Mr. Obama emphasized the continuing strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

"The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable," said Mr. President Obama.

That bond was severely strained when Israel announced the expansion of Jewish settlements in mostly Arab East Jerusalem earlier this year during a visit to the region by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

The mood was so sour that during Mr. Netanyahu's last visit in March, the White House barred cameras. In what was widely viewed as a snub, the president left the prime minister and went upstairs to the residence for more than an hour.

Another meeting was postponed when a raid by Israeli commandos on an aid flotilla led to the deaths of nine pro-Palestinian activists. The incident did not derail indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell has continued his shuttle diplomacy between the parties in an effort to restart direct negotiations.

"It is everybody's goal to get to direct talks. We have to make sure we get to those talks with the understandings in place for both the Israelis and the Palestinian side of what the parameters are, what they are discussing, what the time frame is and what the U.S. is expecting in terms of the process as well," said Hadar Susskind, Vice President for Policy and Strategy at the pro-Israel lobbying organization J Street.

Mr. Netanyahu is promising to take "concrete steps" toward advancing the peace process in the coming weeks.

President Obama has endorsed an Israeli position to resume direct talks before a moratorium on settlement construction expires at the end of September.

"It is impossible to imagine that this Israeli government will extend a moratorium on settlement construction without movement in the peace process, without the Palestinians agreeing to direct talks, something which I should point out has been the norm for the last 17 years," added Satloff.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu back strong sanctions against Iran because of concern it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, something Tehran denies.

In a further effort to reassure the Jewish state, President Obama says there is no change in U.S. policy toward Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons program.

"We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it's in, and the threats that are leveled against us -- against it, that Israel has unique security requirements," said President Obama.

Mr. Obama also has domestic political reasons for softening his public attitude toward Israel. Opposition Republican candidates campaigning before November midterm elections are courting Jewish voters, who ordinarily back Democrats, by trying to portray the president as anti-Israel.

Any breakthrough in the peace process before the elections would help both leaders' popularity at home.

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