Washington — President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Tuesday in an unusual pair of low-profile meetings at the White House amid a serious dispute about settlement construction.
In a break with custom that seemed linked to the crisis complicating U.S.-Israel relations, reporters were not invited to see them shake hands and begin their talks. It is highly unusual for a visiting ally not to be seen with the president, either for photographs or statements.
At issue is Israel’s announcement two weeks ago, as Vice President Joe Biden visited, that it will build 1,600 new apartments in east Jerusalem, the largely Arab section of the disputed holy city. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have delayed new U.S.-sponsored peace talks over what they say is an Israeli land grab.
Obama and Netanyahu initially conferred for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office — a half-hour longer than scheduled. After that meeting, Obama retired to the residence while Netanyahu stayed behind in the White House to consult with his staff in the Roosevelt Room, a White House official said late Tuesday.
Netanyahu then asked for a second meeting with Obama, who came back downstairs to the Oval Office for another 35 minutes of talks with the prime minister, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue.
Although they met for a total of two hours, the White House did not issue a formal statement on what was discussed in either meeting, another break with custom. Israeli officials also had no comment.
Israel on Tuesday unveiled a grandiose plan for hotels, businesses and new housing for Palestinians in the center of east Jerusalem, but the announcement only brought Palestinian suspicion that it was an unacceptable payoff for new building in Jewish neighborhoods. The plan calls for developing a large area across from the Old City wall for tourism and commerce, as well as building 1,000 additional apartments.
On Capitol Hill, Netanyahu received a warm public reception from Congress on Tuesday, with a top Democrat and Republican joining to praise a leader who has refused to back down in a disagreement the White House says threatens new peace talks.
The bipartisan welcome underscored the breadth of congressional support for Israel even when a U.S. president wants to keep his distance. And it pointed to the limited options, beyond verbal rebukes, that the Obama administration faces in pressuring the Jewish state.
“We in Congress stand by Israel,” the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., assured Netanyahu at an all-smiles appearance before the cameras. “In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted Netanyahu this week with a polite rebuke. Expansionist Israeli housing policies erode trust and the U.S. position as an honest broker, she said. Netanyahu’s public reply came quickly: Jews have built their homes in Jerusalem for centuries and will continue, he told a pro-Israel audience.
U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell spent Sunday and Monday shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian officials. He returned to Washington for meetings on Tuesday but appeared to have made little headway with the Palestinians. The State Department said the administration had “seen progress” from Mitchell’s discussion but gave no dates for the start of a new round of talks with Mitchell as go-between.