By Giles Whittell
The London Times
Two separate meetings between President Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, failed to produce so much as an official photograph as a chill settled over US-Israeli relations and secrecy shrouded any efforts to repair them.
The Israeli Prime Minister was due to fly home from Washington after three days marked by Israeli defiance on the issue of settlements and an extraordinary silence maintained by both sides after his three-and-a-half-hour visit to the White House.
The meeting was overshadowed by Israeli approval for 20 homes built for Jews in Arab east Jerusalem — a move denounced by one senior US official as “exactly what we expect Prime Minister Netanyahu to get control of”.
White House staff denied Mr Netanyahu the usual photo opportunities afforded to a visiting leader, issued only the vaguest summary of their talks — let alone a joint statement — and reversed a decision to release an official photo of their meetings.
It was speculated that the talks may have moved beyond the quarrel over Israeli construction in east Jerusalem to final status issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state, as well as Iran and its nuclear programme. However, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, would say only that Mr Obama had asked Mr Netanyahu for confidence-building gestures and clarification of his position on settlements. He described the talks as “honest and straightforward”.
Mr Obama also held telephone talks yesterday with Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and President Sarkozy on Iran, the Middle East peace process and global economic issues, Mr Gibbs said.
Before departing, Mr Netanyahu met with Mr Obama’s envoy George Mitchell, who worked for months to get the Palestinians to take part in indirect negotiations with Israel, only to see them balk when Israel revealed plans for 1,600 new homes in east Jerusalem. The announcement came on March 9, during Vice-President Joe Biden’s latest trip to Jerusalem.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said she wanted peace talks to resume as soon as possible, a sentiment echoed by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, who said he will urge Arab leaders to support indirect talks.
In Jerusalem the government press office issued a terse statement saying that the talks had been held in a good atmosphere. They went on longer than expected with the leaders meeting for 90 minutes, then again for half an hour after a long private discussion between Mr Netanyahu and his advisers in the White House Roosevelt Room. The choreography of the evening suggested that the talks covered substantive proposals, possibly including an undertaking from Mr Netanyahu to prevent ill-timed announcements of Israeli construction. Yet there is little doubt that Mr Netanyahu’s stance on settlements has left him struggling to persuade a newly confident US President of his willingness to compromise for peace.
White House sources said that observers were right to infer from the news blackout that relations between the two sides were not good but later hinted that some Israeli proposals had been favourably received. Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been shelved since 2008.
Palestinian leaders have said that they will not join any peace talks unless all Israeli construction east of the 1949 armistice line is stopped. Before Tuesday’s meeting Israeli experts expected Mr Netanyahu to agree to a secret freeze on building. However, the announcement of new apartments in a development funded by Irving Moskowitz, the Jewish-American billionaire, raised tempers again.
“Israel is digging itself into a hole that it will have to climb out of if it is serious about peace,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said. “There is overwhelming international consensus on the illegality of Israel’s settlements, including in east Jerusalem, and the damage they are doing to the two-state solution.”
Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to persuade Congress that his office had no oversight of the many construction projects in east Jerusalem were greeted with scepticism even within the Prime Minister’s coalition. “Netanyahu decided to spit into Obama’s eye, this time from up close,” said Eitan Cabel, an MP from the Labour Party, a coalition ally of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party. “He and his pyromaniac ministers insist on setting the Middle East ablaze.”