WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday for a White House summit that could see a strong push for direct peace talks with the Palestinians.
A warm red-carpet welcome is expected, in stark contrast to Netanyahu's previous visit in March when he was given the cold shoulder by Obama because of a row over the expansion of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem.
|US President Barack Obama walks towards the Oval Office at the White House. AFP|
A diplomatic flurry in the run-up to this visit, including talks on Monday between Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, suggested movement in the stagnant peace process.
The political calculus has also changed with Obama more jumpy about the important US-Israel axis in the run-up to mid-term elections and Netanyahu appearing keener for direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
"I believe that a main part of my conversations with President Obama in Washington next week will be focused on how to start direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians right away," Netanyahu said last week.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will hold a working lunch with the Israeli leader from 12:35 (1635 GMT), according to the White House.
While no major announcements are expected, US officials talked optimistically about the chances of progress after weeks of shuttle diplomacy by Obama's Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell.
"Certainly a major focus of the discussion will be around the progress that's been made so far in the proximity talks and the opportunity to make the transition into direct talks," said White House adviser Dan Shapiro.
"We feel that already in the little over a month that these talks have been going on, the gaps have narrowed. And we believe there are opportunities to further narrow those gaps to allow the sides to take that next step to the direct talks."
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.
Also on the agenda will be Iran's nuclear programme and Gaza, where Israel has eased a four-year blockade following pressure after its deadly raid on an aid flotilla that killed nine Turks, one of them with US nationality.
The May 31 raid badly damaged relations between Israel and Turkey, two key US allies. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned on the eve of the visit that ties with Israel would be cut unless an apology was forthcoming.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said he expected Netanyahu to give Obama "a report on the early stages of the Israeli investigation into the flotilla tragedy" and that the two would discuss "recent progress" on Gaza.
When Netanyahu and Obama last met in March, the Israeli leader was reportedly chastised by his host and denied privileges customarily granted to foreign dignitaries, even the ritual handshake photo.
It was an expression of Washington's ire at Israeli plans to build 1,600 Jewish homes in annexed east Jerusalem, announced during a trip to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden in a move that Washington called "insulting."
This time, the temperature in the White House is likely to be warmer, with the usual niceties observed.
Obama's Democratic Party is expected to face a tough battle in November's mid-term elections and could lose its congressional majority, while Netanyahu is negotiating his own political minefield.
Obama wants Israel to extend a West Bank settlement freeze due to expire in September, but right wingers in Netanyahu's ruling coalition, notably Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, fiercely oppose a further moratorium.