WASHINGTON // Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu met behind closed doors in the White House last night for the first time since a diplomatic feud erupted over plans for 1,600 new illegal Israeli homes in East Jerusalem. Reporters were excluded, no public remarks were scheduled afterwards and a White House spokesman refused to comment on what might be discussed. Observers speculated that the arrangement signalled a continued strain in the relationship.
The public disagreement and exchange of sharp rhetoric raised concerns, particularly in Israel, that relations between the longtime allies were on the verge of a meltdown. Both sides now seem more willing to move past the dispute, as many analysts predicted, but it remains unclear how - and if - the two sides will compromise on the settlement issue. On Monday the Israeli prime minister told the pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac): "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital."
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, meanwhile, reiterated the administration's position earlier on Monday, telling the same audience that Israeli settlement construction undermines trust between Israelis and Palestinians and "exposes daylight" between the United States and Israel. "Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don't agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally."
Still, both Mr Netanyahu and Mrs Clinton signalled a return to more friendly terms and a shared desire to press ahead with proximity talks, or indirect negotiations, mediated by the United States. The two leaders held a meeting on Monday that Israeli officials described as "friendly", and Mrs Clinton in her speech referred to the US-Israel bond as "rock solid, unwavering, enduring and for ever". Mrs Clinton and Mr Netanyahu presented a united front in their opposition to Iran, which Israel views as its greatest threat.
"A radical Iranian regime armed with nuclear weapons could bring an end to the era of nuclear peace the world has enjoyed for the last 65 years," Mr Netanyahu told Aipac, adding that Israelis will "always reserve the right of self-defence." He concluded his speech by saying that he is "certain that Israel and America will always stand together". Mr Netanyahu, along with Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, also had a working dinner on Monday with Mr Biden and Gen James Jones, the US national security adviser. "They had a productive, candid discussion on the full range of issues in the bilateral relationship," according to an account of the meeting provided by the White House Press Office.
Although the settlement issue continues to be a sticking point, Mr Netanyahu is believed to have agreed to the US request that all outstanding issues, including the future of Jerusalem and the status of final borders, be added to the agenda of the proximity talks. Settlements were expected to figure prominently in Mr Obama's meeting last night with Mr Netanyahu, though few other details of what the two planned to discuss could be known in advance. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Mr Obama was looking forward to a "good discussion" with Mr Netanyahu, and reiterated that the relationship with Israel is strong.
A White House spokesman declined to comment further on what might be discussed. Mr Netanyahu's visit to Washington in November was also closed to the press. Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said he thought the Obama administration's decision to wind down tensions was a "good play". "There's no profit whatsoever in ratcheting this up. It's a loser. It's a dog's lunch of an issue and it will get the administration nowhere," he said. "The administration is keeping its powder dry in the event that there is a serious opportunity to push the negotiations forward."