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Obama and Netanyahu both say talks of U.S.-Israeli rift are 'flat wrong'

Obama and Netanyahu both say talks of U.S.-Israeli rift are 'flat wrong'

President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNASA demonstrates why rocket science is still hard with the SLS test Joe Biden might bring 'unity' – to the Middle East Extremism in the U.S. military MORE and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked hard Tuesday to dispel reports of a rift between the United States and Israel.

After an Oval Office meeting, Obama and Netanyahu rejected any suggestion of a divide and expressed optimism that Israeli and Palestinian leaders will sit down soon for direct peace talks.

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Netanyahu also spoke of “concrete steps” he would take to move the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians forward, though he offered no details. Obama voiced confidence in the Israeli prime minister’s leadership, saying Netanyahu “wants peace” and is “willing to take risks for peace.”

Reports of the demise of the special relationship between Israel and the United States “are not just premature, they’re just flat wrong,” said Netanyahu, who formally invited Obama and the first lady to visit Israel, something Obama has been criticized for not doing since taking office.

The public-relations effort to show the closeness between the two leaders was clearly visible as Obama walked Netanyahu to his car after their meeting ended. Obama praised the “special bond” between Israel and the United States during brief comments, and pledged that the U.S. would work to ensure Israel’s security.

Obama seemed irritated by a question from an Israeli reporter who asked whether the U.S. president was distancing himself from Israel.

“First of all, let me say that the premise of your question is wrong, and I entirely disagree with it,” said Obama, who invited reporters to look at “every public statement” that he and his aides have made since taking office and find one instance of a break or bend in the relationship.

“There aren’t any concrete policies that you could point to that could contradict that,” Obama said.

The president blamed the media, saying reporters in both countries “enjoy seeing if there’s news” in the personal relationship between him and Netanyahu, “but the fact of the matter is I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since before I was elected president, and I’ve said so both publicly and privately.”

Both sides had an interest in portraying Tuesday’s meeting as positive.

During the Israeli prime minister’s last visit, Obama left Netanyahu and his aides stewing in a West Wing room as the president ate dinner upstairs. The White House did not correct reports interpreting it as a slap for Israel’s announcement of settlement expansions in Jerusalem during a visit to that country by Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week Drastic measures for drastic times — caregiver need mobile health apps Boycott sham impeachment MORE.

Yet if the diplomatic dig hurt Netanyahu, it also hurt Obama, as Israelis and some Republican lawmakers openly questioned whether he was giving a longstanding U.S. ally the cold shoulder.

Problems in the Middle East have only intensified since the meeting, after Israeli paratroopers stormed a flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip on May 31, killing nine people aboard one of the ships in the process. The violence forced Netanyahu to postpone a scheduled meeting with Obama.

Obama and Netanyahu said they made progress Tuesday in moving closer to direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the stated purpose of their meeting.

Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, attended the meeting. He has held five “proximity” talks in which he has spoken with both sides; the White House is hoping this will lead to direct talks before late September.

“I believe that the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such talks, and I commend the prime minister for that,” Obama said.

Netanyahu said that his government wants “to explore possibilities for peace” and that he is committed to achieving peace.

The president acknowledged that efforts toward a two-state solution “have obviously escaped our grasps for decades now,” but he said now is the “time to seize on that vision.”

But Obama placed responsibility on Arab states in the region to “be supportive of peace,” saying peace talks “can’t succeed unless you have the surrounding states having a greater investment in the process than we’ve seen so far.”

David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it is too early to tell if Tuesday’s meeting represented a true reset in the relationship, or was merely a move to shore up support for Democrats ahead of the midterm election campaign season.

“We’ll have to see,” Makovsky said. “If [direct] talks are held in December, we could say it’s not just about midterms, it’s a reset.”

Makovsky said both leaders have probably come to realize that it’s in neither of their interests to appear to be on the outs.

“They need each other,” Makovsky said. “There’s no option here of disengagement on either side.”

This story was originally posted at 1:44 p.m. and updated at 8:43 p.m.