President Barack Obama says he believes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace and that Israel is serious about resuming direct talks with the Palestinians.
In an Oval Office meeting with Netanyahu Tuesday, Obama also hailed what he called “real progress” in the Gaza Strip, where Israel recently relaxed an embargo on the entry of goods.
Obama said the U.S. would never ask Israel to take any steps that undermine its security.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed into a White House meeting Tuesday with the same goal: trying to move the Israelis and Palestinians to resume face-to-face peace talks.
Netanyahu’s limousine arrived at the West Wing entrance of the White House for the meeting as protesters gathered across the street in Lafayette Park chanted “No More Aid, End the Blockade,” referring to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The prime minister had no comment as he entered the White House.
Netanyahu on Sunday endorsed the U.S. call for direct talks between the two parties, just days after White House officials said Obama would push during the Oval Office session for those negotiations to get under way sooner rather than later.
Addressing his cabinet Sunday, Netanyahu said the “time has come” for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to get ready to meet with the Israelis “because there is no other way to advance peace. I hope this will be one of the results of the visit to Washington.”
Aides to Obama sounded a hopeful tone late last week, telling reporters that weeks of shuttle diplomacy between the two sides by George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, had paid off and “the gaps have narrowed.”
“We believe there are opportunities to further narrow those gaps, to allow the sides to take that next step to direct talks,” said Daniel Shapiro, the senior Middle East director at the National Security Council.
Obama and Netanyahu also are expected to discuss Israel’s decision Monday to significantly ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip to let in most consumer goods. Israel’s ban on exports from Gaza and limits on shipments of construction material remain.
Israel came under heavy international pressure, including from Obama and other top U.S. officials, to loosen its 3-year-old land and naval blockade of the seaside territory following Israel’s deadly May 31 military raid on a flotilla trying to break the embargo.
At the time, Obama said the situation was “unsustainable.” He called for a narrow blockade to bar weapons that Gaza’s Hamas rulers could use against Israel while admitting items the territory’s 1.5 million Palestinians need for daily living and economic development.
Obama and Netanyahu also are likely to discuss efforts to end Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit, including sanctions Obama signed into law last week. That legislation followed a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran.
After the one-on-one meeting, Obama planned a statement, followed by a lengthy working lunch with Netanyahu. It was a far different atmosphere than during their last meeting when Obama, upset over Israeli policies in disputed East Jerusalem, kept the media away from a chilly late-night session.
Tuesday’s meeting will be the fifth between Obama and Netanyahu and would make up for a scheduled June 1 session at the White House that Netanyahu canceled to deal with fallout from the flotilla raid.
The session follows meetings Obama held at the White House in recent weeks with key Mideast players, including Abbas and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
It comes after that rocky White House meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in March. That followed Israel’s surprise announcement of plans for new construction in east Jerusalem as Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel and preparing for dinner with the prime minister.
Getting both sides to resume direct talks, which broke off in December 2008, is a huge challenge. One big sticking point is Israel’s continued construction of Jewish housing in east Jerusalem, an area the Palestinians claim as part of a hoped-for future state.
The Palestinians have refused to sit down with Netanyahu until he agrees to freeze construction in areas they want for an independent state. Israel recently said it has no intention of doing so.
Abbas said last week that the borders of a future Palestinian state and security relations with Israel are the two issues on the table. He said direct talks can resume if an agreement is reached on them.
Obama has called on Jerusalem to halt settlement construction and on the Palestinians to show progress on security and stopping violence against Israel.