US President Barack Obama holds talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, as ties between the two countries are strained by Israel's refusal to heed demands for a settlement freeze in the West Bank.
AFP - President Barack Obama will hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday as US efforts to revive Middle East peace talks appear in deep crisis.
A White House official announced the Oval Office meeting shortly after the Israeli premier arrived in Washington where he is planned to address a Jewish gathering.
The White House had previously declined to confirm the summit, forcing Israeli officials to deny that the absence of an invitation would be a snub to hawkish Netanyahu.
Israel's ties with the Obama administration had been strained over the premier's refusal to heed the US demand for a settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank ahead of resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Speaking to reporters onboard his plane to Washington, Netanyahu however reiterated his willingness "to immediately engage in peace talks with the Palestinians without any preconditions."
But the Obama-Netanyahu talks come at a delicate time for Washington and its sputtering efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a goal the US administration has made the cornerstone of its Middle East policy.
US attempts to put the peace talks back on track after their suspension last December have in recent days suffered heavy setbacks.
The first crisis came when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Netanyahu's offer of a limited easing of settlement construction as "unprecedented" during a visit to the region last week, triggering Palestinian and Arab fury.
The declaration marked a stark break from months of US backing of the Palestinian demand for a total Jewish settlement freeze ahead of the renewal of talks.
Clinton later backtracked, but her statements were widely interpreted as a U-turn by Washington which, after months of pressing Israel on settlements, appeared to back off and pile the pressure instead on the Palestinians to relaunch talks without preconditions.
The Obama-Netanyahu meeting a little over a week after Clinton's remarks would be likely to reinforce that view among Palestinians and the Arab world, analysts said.
Days after Clinton's visit Washington's peace efforts were dealt another blow when moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who has headed the peace talks with Israel, announced he would not stand for re-election in polls he has called for January.
Palestinian officials said the move came because he was disappointed with the US stance on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which the international community considers illegal.
The Palestinians want all settlement activity frozen before the resumption of peace talks that were suspended during Israel's war on the Gaza Strip at the beginning of the year.
Obama was originally also scheduled to speak at the gathering, but has cancelled his appearance in order to attend a memorial service at Fort Hood military base after the massacre there, the organisation said on its website.
His chief of staff Rahm Emanuel will make a speech instead.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was also in Washington on Sunday for talks with his US counterpart Robert Gates and US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell, an official in his office told AFP.
In Washington, Netanyahu also plans to hold talks in Congress, before heading to Paris to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, Israeli officials said. France has not yet confirmed the meeting.
Date created : 2009-11-09