Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu left the White House after a one-hour and 40-minute meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama Monday night without speaking to reporters -- a rare occurrence.
The meeting had been grudgingly scheduled early Sunday morning by the White House just a few hours before Netanyahu was to leave for the U.S. to speak at the 2009 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. The ninth-hour appointment was a clear sign that relations between Washington and Jerusalem remain strained; Netanyahu had requested the meeting weeks ago.
Also in attendance for part of the meeting was Defense Minister Ehud Barak, National Security Council head Uzi Arad, Ambassador Michael Oren and Netanyahu adviser Yitzchak Molcho. U.S. officials included National Security Adviser General (ret.) Jim Jones, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell and National Security Council Director for Near Eastern Affairs Dan Shapiro.
On the agenda was the issue of Iran's galloping nuclear technology development, as well as the current paralysis in talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the claim by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that he is resigning in January. All three matters are being taken "very seriously" by the Prime Minister's Office, said a spokesman.
Netanyahu had reportedly been planning to tell the president that Israel was willing to be "generous" in scaling back Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria, and "means business" about rejuvenating talks with the PA.
But the brief statement issued by the White House following the talks said simply that the two leaders discussed "how to move forward on Middle East peace." The White House spokesman added, "The president reaffirmed our strong commitment to Israel's security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues."
Netanyahu declined to comment on his conversation with the president, and cancelled a briefing with the media he had scheduled for the next day. The prime minister departed for Paris on Tuesday morning without speaking to reporters.
According to State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, special Middle East envoy George Mitchell is not planning to return to the region anytime soon to pressure either of the parties toward further talks. It is possible that Mitchell has decided to wait until after the PA elections on January 24, when the question of who is actually leading the Palestinian Authority may be clarified.