Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday in their first face-to-face talks since a raid by Israeli commandos on an aid flotilla led to the deaths of nine pro-Palestinian activists. The talks come as a deadline is approaching for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and during an apparent strategic shift by Turkey in the Middle East.
The Israeli commando raid that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American brought tens of thousands of protestors out on the streets of Europe and the Middle East.
The incident brought renewed attention to Israel's blockade of Gaza, a narrow coastal strip along the Mediterranean Sea that is home to 1.5 million Palestinians.
While the U.S. did not join international calls to condemn Israel, President Obama met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. "It is important that we get all the facts out, but what we also know is that the situation in Gaza is unsustainable. I think increasingly you are seeing debates within Israel, recognizing the problems with the status quo, and so President Abbas and I had very extensive discussions about how we could help to promote a better approach to Gaza," he said.
Initially the crisis threatened to derail indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, however U.S. special envoy George Mitchell renewed his shuttle diplomacy between the parties just days before President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are to meet. The Palestinians have put a September deadline on the current round of negotiations.
Middle East analyst Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. "Clearly there is an expectation that this diplomacy is aimed at resolving the conflict, not at managing it. There is a sense of urgency. Time is running out for the two state solution. It is the only solution that the U.S. advocates. A President of the United States has to be involved for that to happen," he said.
President Obama has made resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top foreign policy priority of his administration.
Mr. Obama has pressured Israel to stop Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which has resulted in strains in the relationship between the two countries.
There has been little public progress in the peace process since Mr. Obama took office and critics like Danielle Pletka, the Vice President of the American Enterprise Institute, say the situation is deteriorating. "Well I think that the president has successfully managed to erode the United States special relationship with Israel, not to speak of our special relationship with a whole variety of other allies. He has managed to put the Palestinians in an incredibly invidious position in which they cannot accept less than the American president demands. He has managed to setup peace talks that are of a lower standard and with less prospect for success than any previous Republican or Democratic president. So I think things have, to use the vernacular, gone to hell in a hand basket," he said.
Some Middle East analysts say the Gaza blockade has not significantly weakened the militant group Hamas, which seized power in the territory in 2007.
The flotilla raid severely strained the relationship between Israel and Turkey, which until recently enjoyed relatively warm relations.
"Turkey was playing a key role in mediation. The worsening of relations between Turkey and Israel has in some ways challenged the strategic picture, including the way Israel sees itself in the region," said Telhami.
Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel after the flotilla incident and has called for Israel to apologize and compensate victims' families.
Turkey also called for Israel to lift the Gaza blockade and the Jewish state has begun to allow more items into the territory.
Analysts say Turkey's actions are an apparent sign of a strategic shift by Ankara in the Middle East. "Turkey has decided that it wishes to orient itself, not toward the European Union, not toward the West, but instead toward the Middle East. Worst still, not toward the Arab world with which we work, but instead towards Syria, towards Iran and other countries and I think we have to see the flotilla incident in that context," Pletka said.
During the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu both leaders are expected to try to move beyond what has often been a rocky relationship.
The last time the Israeli leader visited the White House following a dispute over Jewish settlements the two men did not pose for pictures or hold a joint press conference.