Bloomberg | Jul 6, 2010
President Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today at a moment when U.S.-Israeli ties are improving. Further warming may depend on whether Israel extends a settlement-building freeze due to expire in September. The U.S. sided with Israel in the face of international criticism following its raid on a Gaza aid flotilla in May and persuaded the United Nations to impose additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program last month. Those actions helped reverse a downturn in relations that developed over Israel’s plan to build 1,600 new homes in east Jerusalem. Dan Shapiro, senior director at the White House for the Middle East and North Africa, told reporters last week that the freeze on building new homes in West Bank settlements, announced by Netanyahu on Nov. 25, has helped advance efforts toward the goal of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
“There has been a distinct improvement in the White House relationship with Israel since the last meeting” between Obama and Netanyahu on March 23, said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “Obama will be looking for a payback,” perhaps in the form of an extension to the settlement freeze, Spyer said. The stakes are potentially high for both leaders. Obama has expended political capital on reviving the peace negotiations, beginning with indirect talks intended to lead toward direct ones — something that aides to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas say won’t happen unless Israel halts all settlement building. Netanyahu could lose his parliamentary majority if he extends the settlement freeze beyond the Sept. 26 expiration.
The Obama administration is “very keen to see the moratorium extended,” said Roger Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “That’s a very difficult issue they will probably not be able to resolve during this visit.” Shapiro said the focus of the discussion between the leaders would be “on making that transition into direct talks” and on what has been covered through the indirect talks. U.S. officials say that relations between the two countries have improved considerably since March, when Israel’s announcement of the east Jerusalem housing plan in the midst of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden drew criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “There’s absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel,” said Ben Rhodes, a U.S. deputy national security adviser. “This is a relationship that is very strong and very important to the United States.”