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(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received a warmer public reception from Congress than from the Obama administration, with a top Democrat and Republican joining Tuesday to welcome a leader who has agreed to disagree with the White House over Israeli housing expansion on disputed ground.
"We in Congress stand by Israel," the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, assured Netanyahu at an all-smiles appearance before the cameras. "In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel."
Netanyahu's meeting with US President Barack Obama later on Tuesday will be closed to journalists, leaving the impression he was not comfortable being seen or photographed with top administration officials. The Obama administration appears eager to let Netanyahu's awkwardly timed visit pass with as little public remark as possible, and has refused to detail what promises Netanyahu is making to ease the most serious diplomatic breach between the two nations in decades.
The abrupt rescheduling of Netanyahu's planned trip to the State Department for what had been billed as a public meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday underscored the uneasy atmosphere. Netanyahu's meeting with Clinton took place at his hotel and was closed to the press.
It was followed by a private dinner at Vice President Joe Biden's home on Monday night that was meant to salve hurt feelings from two weeks ago, when Netanyahu's government announced a provocative housing expansion in east Jerusalem while Biden was visiting the city. Angry and embarrassed, Biden was reportedly 90 minutes late for a dinner with Netanyahu following the announcement. The rift widened, and both nations are now trying to move on without backing down.
"We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world than Israel," said House Republican Leader John Boehner. "We all know we're in a difficult moment. I'm glad the prime minister is here so we can have an open dialogue."
Pelosi and Boehner both pointed to the threat from Iran as a top concern, and an area in which the United States will cooperate with Israel.
Netanyahu thanked his congressional hosts for what he called warm, bipartisan support. He also spoke, among others, with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, a Democrat, Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent.
"We face two great challenges", Netanyahu said, a "quest for peace with our Palestinian neighbors" and stopping Iran from developing atomic weapons.
Netanyahu has been trying to deflect US criticism of his government's plans for 1,600 housing units in a part of Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as their own. He bluntly asserted before the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee Monday that "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital."
Clinton told a pro-Israel audience Monday that Israeli expansion in areas claimed by the Palestinians is not in Israel's long-term interests and undermines US credibility as a mediator in the Mideast peace process.
Obama has remained out of the fray as Clinton and other US officials have rebuked Israel.
After strong statements on both sides, the Obama administration and the
Netanyahu camp struck a stance of relative silence Tuesday.
P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, lifting the curtain a bit
to the Associated Press, said: "This is a process with give and take,
and that is exactly what is happening. We laid out our concerns and the
Israelis have laid out their concerns, and we continue discussions with
Crowley said that public stance would be maintained. "We are not going
to talk about the precise steps both sides have to take. We will
continue to discuss those steps privately," he said.