'No PM-Obama meeting scheduled'

White House denies Fox News report; George Mitchell due back Sunday.

netanyahu 311 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu 311
(photo credit: AP)
The White House said Friday that no meeting has been scheduled between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for next week, despite a Fox News report of a planned parley. White House officials, however, didn't rule out the potential for such a meeting to be added to the schedule early next week, when Netanyahu is in town to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
On Thursday night, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Netanyahu over the phone. The two discussed the Ramat Shlomo construction crisis, and Netanyahu proposed mutual confidence building measures between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank. The media was not provided with specifics as to the measures considered, although the Prime Minister’s Office noted that these had been agreed upon by Netanyahu’s inner cabinet.
With the Netanyahu government still drafting a formula on construction in Jerusalem to satisfy the Americans, the Prime Minister’s Office said on Thursday that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is scheduled to arrive here on Sunday to work toward indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mitchell was originally expected last week, but postponed his trip amid reports that he was awaiting Israeli answers to demands that Clinton had made, following the Ramat Shlomo construction flap.
One of her demands was reportedly for Netanyahu to cancel the Ramat Shlomo project.
Mitchell is scheduled to meet both Netanyahu and  Barak before the two of them leave for the US Sunday evening to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference.
Netanyahu on Thursday asked Barak to accompany him on the visit, which will take place during one of the most difficult patches in US-Israeli relations in years.
Although no meetings with top-level US officials have yet been set, Netanyahu – despite the current tension – is expected to meet both Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.
The White House confirmed that Biden held a telephone conversation with Netanyahu on Tuesday, and agreed to meet with him.
The last time Netanyahu went to Washington, to address the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference in November, lack of the coordination with the White House resulted in an awkwardly arranged last-minute meeting.
A repeat performance was to have been avoided next week by Obama’s being out of town during Netanyahu’s visit. But now, as Netanyahu returns to speak to AIPAC on Monday, amid even greater tensions with the US administration than existed in November, a similar potential for diplomatic discomfort arises.
At this point, the White House is saying nothing about the president’s schedule next week, with aides noting the decision to cancel the planned trip to Indonesia and Australia had only just been announced. The Prime Minister’s Office also said it was too early to discuss a meeting, and that the focus of Netanyahu’s visit was on the AIPAC conference.
Obama’s trip was scrapped so he could concentrate on turning up sufficient votes for his major domestic priority, a teetering health care bill that he wants to see Congress pass before its spring recess at the end of March. That means, at the very least, that large chunks of Obama’s calendar in the coming days will be devoted to dealing with the legislation, not the Middle East.
Obama, meanwhile, tried to dial down the crisis atmosphere in US-Israeli relations, saying on Wednesday night that the American and Israel people have a “special bond” even if recent actions in Jerusalem harmed the peace process.
Obama told Fox News that “friends are going to disagree sometimes” and criticized Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas for taking moves that “weren’t helpful” to the peace process.
But Obama noted that Netanyahu “acknowledged as much and apologized for it.”
A planning committee within Yishai’s ministry approved 1,600 units of housing in east Jerusalem during Biden’s visit to Israel last week, embarrassing the US government and setting off the current diplomatic row.
Obama stressed that “we need both sides to take steps to make sure that we can rebuild trust,” and criticized the Palestinians for rioting at the rededication of the Hurva Synagogue in the the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.
Asked whether there was a crisis in the Jerusalem-Washington relationship, Obama answered negatively, saying, “Israel is one of our closest allies” and that “we and the Israeli people have a special bond that’s not going to go away.”
Obama added that he “specifically sent” Biden to Israel “to send a message of support and reassurance about my belief that Israel’s security is sacrosanct and that we have a host of shared interests.”
Also in the Fox interview, Obama reiterated America’s intention to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the face of setbacks to its strategy of engaging Teheran.
“We are going to go after aggressive sanctions. We haven’t taken any options off the table,” he said, a phrase leaving open the possibility of using military force, which the administration has largely de-emphasized while pursuing its diplomatic outreach.
“We are going to keep on pushing.” Obama declared, “It is one of our highest priorities to make sure that Iran doesn’t possess a nuclear weapon.”
Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, meanwhile, emphasized the need to work with the administration on that priority, in an op-ed piece in Thursday’s New York Times, agreeing with Obama’s assessment that relations are not in crisis.
“American-Israeli cooperation is vital to meeting the direst challenge facing both countries and the entire world: denying nuclear weapons to Iran,” he wrote. “Though we may disagree with the White House at certain stages of the peace process, we must never allow such differences to obscure the purpose we share or to raise doubts about the unbreakable bonds between us.”
Oren again denied having said that US-Israel ties were at their lowest point in 35 years while giving a confidential briefing to consuls-general on Saturday evening, as had been reported in the Hebrew media.
“Israel and America enjoy a deep and multi-layered friendship, but even the closest of allies can sometimes disagree. Such a disagreement began last week,” he wrote. “While this discord was unfortunate, it was not a historic low point in United States-Israel relations.”
Biden also put the fracas in perspective when addressing the Radio & TV Correspondents’ Dinner on Wednesday night, when top US officials are known to deliver speeches parodying themselves, current events and their political opponents.
“Trying to negotiate a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis is tough – but it was a hell of a nice break from health care,” he said, referring to the administration’s efforts to twist enough arms to get the bill passed.
He also said, to laughter and applause, “I love travel, but it’s great to be back in a place where a boom in housing construction is actually a good thing.”