As Netanyahu visits, White House insists 'no rift' between Israel, U.S.

Senior White House officials say there is "absolutely no rift" between the United States and Israel as President Barack Obama prepares to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday.

Obama has been meeting with Netanyahu and other key players in the Middle East in hopes of reopening direct peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, but Obama's relationship with the Israelis is fraught with tension.

A recent Israeli raid on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza has only exacerbated those tensions, as the United States was put in the position of having to sign on to a United Nations statement condemning the attack.

This heightened the concern of many in Congress, as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led a letter signed by 85 members of the upper chamber in June asking that the U.S. support Israel at the U.N.

"The United States has traditionally stood with Israel because it is in our national security interest and must continue to do so," the letter stated. "We ask you to stand firm in the future at the United Nations Security Council and to use your veto power, if necessary, to prevent any similar biased or one-sided resolutions from passing."

But aides to Obama say there is no rift between Israel and the U.S., despite the concerns of many in the U.S. that Obama is more focused on a two-state Middle East peace solution than America's longstanding relationship with Israel.

"We view the prime minister as our partner in the effort to pursue peace with the Palestinians, peace — comprehensive peace in the region — and deal with all of the security threats, many of which are threats that we both face — the same threats," said Daniel Shapiro, Obama's senior director for the Middle East and North Africa. "So in no way do we perceive a rift; quite the contrary, we perceive — and I believe our friends in Israel perceive a strong, close relationship — a partnership."

This will be the fifth meeting between Obama and Netanyahu and the third at the White House. The Israeli prime minister canceled a visit in late May to return to Israel following the flotilla raid.

Netanyahu's visit at the end of March was clouded by reports that the prime minister had been left on his own while Obama left to eat dinner, the two leaders having reached an impasse over a freeze in settlement growth and building in east Jerusalem. The two leaders did not pose publicly for pictures.

This time around, the prime minister is expected to get a warmer public welcome. Netanyahu will be staying at Blair House instead of a hotel, and the two leaders will hold a joint photo-op.

White House officials say they are hopeful that Obama and Netanyahu will make progress toward bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the table directly to negotiate peace.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said last week that the U.S. has been using proximity talks in the region, "which are focused on the full range of substantive issues between Israelis and Palestinians," to "narrow gaps and create the best conditions possible to move toward direct negotiations."

Rhodes said there is "absolutely no rift" between the U.S. and Israel, adding that the administration thinks the meeting "comes at a time of some momentum on a number of fronts."

Rhodes said the White House has made great progress in working with Israelis to lessen the tension over aid shipments to Gaza, met with Palestinian leaders and taken great strides in dealing with the Iranian threat by implementing new sanctions on the country.

Israel on Monday announced an easing of the Gaza blockade, annoucing it would publish a firm list of prohibited items instead of an ever-changing list of permitted items. Quartet envoy Tony Blair hailed the move as a change that "should have a dramatic influence on the daily lives of the people of Gaza and on the private sector." The White House had no immediate comment.

Netanyahu also addressed the Middle East peace process Wednesday with envoy George Mitchell, who visited one of the Gaza border crossings.

"I think it's time to put aside posturing," Netanyahu said. "It's time to put aside preconditions. It's time to get on with direct talks — formal direct talks for peace. And I call on President Abu Mazen to come to Jerusalem. I'm prepared to go to Ramallah." (Abu Mazen is an honorific name for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.)

"I hope and I believe that a main part of our — my conversations with President Obama in Washington next week will be focused on how to start direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians right away," Netanyahu added. "I hope we get on with it."