What rift? Obama, Netanyahu say bond ‘unbreakable’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Eager to show unity to the world, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday dismissed talk of a rift as wildly unfounded, and Netanyahu pledged concrete, “very robust” steps to revive sluggish Mideast peace efforts with the Palestinians.

In a warm, yet carefully choreographed White House embrace, the two leaders took pains to persuade allies and enemies alike that a deeply important relationship is doing just fine.

The two nations clearly felt that was necessary. The meeting came five weeks after Israel’s deadly raid on a flotilla that was trying to break the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. That raid brought international outrage and tested U.S. support for Israel’s security steps.

But the optics and words of Tuesday’s visit all sent one message: unshaken cooperation.

Netanyahu emerged with a pile of promises from Obama that the U.S. is both committed to Israel’s security and a believer that the prime minister wants peace with Palestinians. For his part, Netanyahu showed the urgency that Obama wants in boosting peace efforts, though he didn’t say in public just what he might have planned.

The last time Netanyahu visited in March, amid a moment of deep tension over Israeli settlements in disputed territory, reporters were not even invited to see the leaders shake hands. This time, the two men were in front of the cameras plenty. The media got to see them talking, smiling — even Obama escorting Netanyahu off to his waiting limo.

Where there was agreement, such as on Iran’s nuclear ambitions or the promise of Mideast peace, Obama and Netanyahu emphasized it. Where tensions remain, such as on Israeli settlements or the attack on the aid flotilla, there was little public mention.

“The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable,” Obama said near the start of his comments in the Oval Office, with Netanyahu at his side.

By the time the two leaders took questions from reporters, including one that asserted Obama had distanced himself from Israel, the leaders were cued and ready.

“The premise of your question was wrong, and I entirely disagree with it,” Obama said calmly. Even in times of tough conversations with Netanyahu, he said, “the underlying approach never changes, and that is, the United States is committed to Israel’s security. We are committed to that special bond.”

Netanyahu added a touch of Mark Twain: “The reports about the demise of the special U.S.-Israel relationship aren’t just premature. They’re just flat wrong.”

That relationship has implications across the globe. Israel, a democracy in an explosive region, is counting on unwavering support from the U.S. At. the same time, Palestinians want assurances the U.S. will be a fair broker in any peace efforts. Iran and other U.S. foes watch with an eye toward exploiting any divisions.

And in the United States, Obama faces scrutiny from Republican critics, plus at least a segment of his own supporters, for any move deemed to be anti-Israel.

Netanyahu offered no new details on whether a settlement freeze in the West Bank, set to expire in September, will be lifted or continued. The Israeli leader is under pressure from hard-liners in his coalition government to resume full-fledged construction once the freeze ends, yet such a move could erode peace efforts.

When Obama was asked about this, he did not answer directly, giving Netanyahu space. The president commended the Israeli government for showing “restraint” over the past several months and then pivoted to his hope that direct peace talks would resume soon — before the September deadline.

All the while, the notion of a testy time in U.S.-Israeli relations, as driven by recent events, framed expectations.

Israel announced construction of new apartments in disputed east Jerusalem in March just as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, an embarrassing setback that Biden condemned. Then came Netanyahu’s distinctly low-profile time at the White House in March just a couple of weeks later, fueling talk of dissension. And on May 31 came the Israeli raid in which nine men were killed.

Yet Obama and Netanyahu broadly made the opposite case — that U.S.-Israeli ties are deepening, often without the publicity that grievances receive.

Among the areas in which they sought to show progress:

— Iran. Netanyahu commended the United Nations Security Council and the United States for slapping new sanctions on Iran in attempts to curtail its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. “I urge other leaders to follow the president’s lead, and other countries to follow the U.S. lead,” Netanyahu said.

— Peace talks. Obama prodded for direct peace talks to resume between Israelis and Palestinians after weeks in which the U.S. has served as an indirect mediator. “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace,” he said. Netanyahu said much the same about himself but unveiled no ideas on ending the standoff. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu must choose between settlements and peace. “We want to resume direct negotiations, but the problem is that the land that is supposed to be a Palestinian state is being eaten up by settlements,” he told The Associated Press.

— Security. Obama assured Netanyahu: “The United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.” In yet another notable sign of outreach to Israel, he said there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to nuclear nonproliferation. It was a reference to the U.S. view that the effort to strengthen an international treaty on nuclear nonproliferation should not single out Israel, as happened during a recent review conference in New York.

In one last friendly touch, the Israeli prime minister invited Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, for a visit to Israel.

“It’s about time,” Netanyahu said as he held his fifth U.S chat with Obama. Said a smiling Obama: “We look forward to it.”


Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Jennifer Loven in Washington and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this story.