Obama, Netanyahu make nice, but conflicts remain 

Calling their bond "unbreakable," President Obama downplayed any disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- while warning that peace still means "tough choices."

"He is dealing with a very complex situation in a very tough neighborhood," Obama said of Netanyahu. "And what I have consistently shared with him is my interest in working with him -- not at cross-purposes."

In their fifth meeting since Obama took office, the two leaders discussed Gaza, Iran and the Middle East peace effort -- expressing more hope than confidence that progress can be made.

"I think he's willing to take risks for peace," Obama said. "And during our conversation, he once again reaffirmed his willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians around what I think should be the goal not just of the two principals involved, but the entire world, and that is two states living side by side in peace and security."

Their side-by-side comity before reporters in the Oval Office was a sharp contrast to their last meeting in March, when Obama snubbed a joint appearance with the visiting prime minister.

Not addressed in their joint statements were continued tensions over the expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem -- viewed as a major roadblock to progress in the peace negotiations.

It was their first meeting since the Israeli military attack in May on a ship running a blockade off the coast of Gaza. Obama praised Netanyahu for subsequently easing restrictions that kept supplies and materials from the Palestinian residents of Gaza.

Netanyahu in turn recognized Obama for signing a bill last week imposing new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

"I think the sanctions the president signed the other day actually have teeth," Netanyahu said. "They bite."

For his part, Netanyahu also dismissed claims that relations between the two were chilly, paraphrasing Mark Twain by saying that "reports of the demise of the special U.S.-Israel relations" were both premature and "flat wrong."

In the days leading up to the meeting, White House officials took pains to emphasize the shared interests of the two leaders and the closeness of the relationship, while downplaying any disagreements.

"We view the prime minister as our partner in the effort to pursue peace with the Palestinians -- peace, comprehensive peace in the region -- and deal with all of the security threats, many of which are threats that we both face, the same threats. So in no way do we perceive a rift -- quite the contrary," said Dan Shapiro, senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council.

But behind the scenes, the administration has been frustrated by Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart, President Mahmoud Abbas, for seemingly intractable disagreements and mutual hard lines that have frustrated Obama's efforts to broker the peace. Both sides have accused the other of stalling the process.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has staked much of his foreign policy credentials on finally realizing the long-discussed two-state solution in the Middle East -- a conflict that stymied several of his predecessors.

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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Julie Mason

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