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Netanyahu in Washington to repair troubled relations

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (pictured) met in Washington on Tuesday with US President Barack Obama in an effort to smooth over an unusually rocky period in diplomatic relations between the two countries.


AFP - US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Tuesday in talks meant to put an unusual public rift to rest and invigorate peace talks with the Palestinians.

The White House is going out of its way to differentiate this visit from the cool reception given Netanyahu in March, when he was denied a public appearance with the US leader amid a tense showdown over Israeli settlement building.

Obama and Netanyahu will hold a press availability in front of the cameras in the Oval Office before a working lunch, with both sides seeing compelling political reasons to smooth over a damaging row -- in public at least.

Netanyahu arrived outside the West Wing of the White House in his limousine, driving past a cordoned-off construction site on the presidential mansion's North Lawn, where work is going on to update underground piping.

Few breakthroughs were expected at the talks, set to focus on regional peace moves and also likely to touch on the building confrontation with Iran, following the adoption of new United Nations, US and EU nuclear sanctions.

Obama is seeking to turn current indirect "proximity" talks between Israel and the Palestinians, moderated by his Middle East envoy George Mitchell, into face-to-face negotiations on forging a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu says he is ready to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at any time, but the Palestinians accuse Israel of undermining the push for talks with mere public relations moves while continuing settlement building activity.

The Palestinians froze direct negotiations in December 2008 when Israel launched a deadly 22-day offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to halt rocket attacks.

Obama's aides insist that the proximity talks have "narrowed gaps" and are making progress -- despite Palestinian claims they have yielded little progress.

They also seemed keen last week to stress that a partial freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, which expires in September, would not be the central focus of the Oval Office talks.

Netanyahu is under extreme pressure from his right-wing coalition not to cave in to US demands to extend the moratorium, which was announced in November after Obama's administration pushed for concessions to the Palestinians.

The Palestinians, who argued the partial freeze does not go far enough, would likely react furiously if it is not extended, and the mood for direct talks with Israel would sour.

A diplomatic flurry in the run-up to this visit, including talks on Monday between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, suggested movement in the stagnant peace process.

Obama also recently met Abbas and Saudi King Abdullah at the White House.

Obama and Netanyahu will be meeting for the first time since Israel's raid on an aid flotilla headed for Gaza in May, which killed nine Turks, and triggered a regional diplomatic crisis.

On the eve of Netanyahu's visit, Israel gave the go-ahead for the international community to import construction materials into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip for projects under international supervision.

Because of the blockade, little reconstruction has taken place in the Palestinian territory since Israel's Gaza offensive.

The United States welcomed the move.

Washington is also concerned about the escalating diplomatic showdown between Israel and its key NATO ally Turkey.

Ankara has demanded a full Israeli apology for the Gaza flotilla raid and has even threatened to sever ties with Israel over the incident.

Obama has been facing political heat -- even from some Democratic allies at home -- over his stance towards Netanyahu.

The president has faced orchestrated campaigns in Congress from the Israel lobby to let up on Netanyahu, and some candidates in this year's mid-term elections may face pressure on the issue.

Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, which can be crucial in areas like Florida, in the 2008 election.

Netanyahu arrived in Washington after his plane touched down at Andrews Air Force base shortly after 4:00 am (0800 GMT) on Tuesday.

At the working lunch, Obama will be joined by Vice President Joe Biden and members of Netanyahu's delegation, according to the White House and the Israeli prime minister's office.

The rift between the two sides in March was triggered by US ire at Israeli plans to build 1,600 Jewish homes in annexed east Jerusalem, announced during a trip to Israel by Biden.

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