U.S. President Barack Obama has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House next week, for an apparent fence-mending visit.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel delivered the invitation in person to Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday, while on a family visit to Israel.
“(President Obama) has asked me to extend an invitation to you to come visit with him at the White House for a working meeting to discuss both our shared security interests as well as our close cooperation on seeking peace between Israel and its neighbours,” Emanuel told Netanyahu.
Israeli commentators portrayed the surprise talks as an attempt by Obama to counter criticism by U.S. Jewish leaders and in Congress over what was widely seen as his cold shoulder toward Netanyahu after a public dispute over settlement policy.
Obama will host Netanyahu on Tuesday after the Israeli leader completes a visit to France where he will attend a ceremony welcoming Israel to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and to Canada.
Emanuel was on a private visit to Israel for his teenage son’s Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony.
Netanyahu last saw Obama in March in a low-profile White House meeting that was portrayed in Israel as a snub to its leader because it did not include the usual photo opportunity afforded visiting foreign leaders.
Earlier that month, Israel embarrassed Washington and angered Palestinians by announcing during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden a project to build 1,600 homes for Jews in Ramat Shlomo, in an area of the occupied West Bank it annexed to Jerusalem.
Announcement of the settlement plan, which Netanyahu has said would not get under way for at least two years, led to a delay in the start of indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks, which eventually began under U.S. mediation three weeks ago.
Israeli media reports predicted Obama would attempt in the upcoming White House talks to portray his relationship with Netanyahu in a warmer light, ensuring photographs would be taken and possibly holding a news conference with him.
Obama has put both Israel and the Palestinians on notice they would be held accountable if either side took actions to undermine the so-called “proximity talks” being mediated by his Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Getting the two sides to revive negotiations, after an 18-month break, marks Obama’s most tangible Middle East achievement since he took office last year. But expectations remain low for any kind of breakthrough.
Netanyahu, who heads a coalition dominated by pro-settler parties, including his own, has rejected a total freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in territory captured in a 1967 war.
But no new Israeli housing projects in East Jerusalem have been approved since March, raising speculation Netanyahu has imposed a de facto moratorium that could avoid friction with Washington and any showdown with far-right coalition partners.
Palestinians see settlements as an obstacle to the creation of a state they seek to establish in the West Bank, where Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds sway, and in the Gaza Strip, an enclave controlled by Hamas Islamists opposed to the U.S. peace efforts.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Editing by Michael Roddy)