WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday during a carefully choreographed White House makeup meeting that was short on details that they'd press for a quick resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
At a picture-taking session with Netanyahu, Obama said he hoped that direct Middle East talks could begin "well before" Israel's moratorium on new West Bank settlements expires in September. He called on Israelis and Palestinians to take confidence-building steps to prepare the ground, but he gave few specifics.
"The president and I discussed concrete steps that could be done now — in the coming days, in the coming weeks — to move the peace process further along in a very robust way," Netanyahu said.
Obama made Middle East peace a priority on taking office, but he's struggled to show progress. The tone at Tuesday's meeting suggested that he's discarded his tactic of public confrontation with Israel, after it backfired.
The meeting was orchestrated down to the smallest detail to project an image of an untroubled U.S.-Israeli alliance, an image with potential political benefits for the president and other Democrats in November's midterm elections.
Obama even signaled, albeit in diplomatic code, that his drive for nuclear nonproliferation doesn't extend to Israel's unacknowledged nuclear arsenal. "We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it's in and the threats that are leveled ... against it, that Israel has unique security requirements," he said.
The tone and atmospherics could hardly have been more different from Netanyahu's last visit to Washington in March, when the president declined even to have his picture taken with the prime minister. The administration was smarting from the embarrassment two weeks earlier, when an Israeli announcement of construction of 1,600 apartments for Israelis in disputed East Jerusalem upstaged what was to be a fence-mending trip by Vice President Joe Biden.
During a heated discussion of Israeli settlement activity, Obama was reported to have left the Israeli leader and his aides waiting and gone to the White House residence to dine with his daughters.
Tuesday's one-on-one session lasted an hour and 19 minutes and was followed by a working luncheon attended by the administration's top brass, including Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser James Jones, special adviser Dennis Ross and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
David Makovsky, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said U.S.-Israeli positions have converged quietly in recent months on issues such as curbing Iran's nuclear program and easing Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Beyond the specifics, however, Makovsky said, Obama and Netanyahu need to establish personal trust in their relationship. "These guys might not love each other, but they have to work together," he said.
Still, it's far from certain that the president's warmer approach to Israel will result in progress toward Middle East peace.
Netanyahu is under intense pressure from members of his right-wing coalition at home not to extend the moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank to East Jerusalem.
"It's going to be very hard" to extend the moratorium, said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish organization that favors Israeli-Palestinian peace. On Tuesday, the group sent the White House a petition with some 16,000 signatures asking Obama to urge Israel to extend the moratorium.
The president didn't reply directly when a reporter asked him whether the moratorium should be continued past September.
Moreover, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is reluctant to move from indirect talks, mediated by special U.S. envoy George Mitchell, to the direct negotiations called for Tuesday.
The Palestinians first want assurances that the negotiations will lead to an independent state. "We cannot just engage again in a process that will lead us nowhere," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian envoy to Washington.
Obama's outreach to Israel follows a recent pattern of smoothing over differences with allies. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was feted during a May visit to Washington after months of mutual recriminations.
It also brings potential domestic political benefits. White House officials were to brief major American Jewish groups by telephone Tuesday evening.
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