JERUSALEM, May 26 (Jeffrey Heller/Reuters) - US President Barack Obama has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
to the White House for separate meetings, White House officials said on Wednesday.
The meetings with Obama will be the first for the Middle Eastern leaders since the start of indirect peace talks which began last month, with Obama's special envoy George Mitchell mediating between the parties.
But Israeli commentators portrayed the surprise invitation to Netanyahu as an attempt by Obama to counter U.S. criticism of what was widely seen as his cold shoulder toward the Israeli leader after a public dispute over Jewish settlements
Obama has put both Israel
and the Palestinians on notice they will be held accountable if either side takes actions to undermine the so-called proximity talks Mitchell is mediating.
Obama will use his meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas to give a boost to the proximity talks. Both meetings are designed to help move that process forward, said a White House spokesman in Washington, Tommy Vietor.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel delivered the invitation in person to Netanyahu in Jerusalem
on Wednesday, while on a family visit to Israel.
Obama will host Netanyahu Tuesday after the Israeli leader completes a visit to France where he will attend a ceremony welcoming Israel to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and to Canada.
(President Obama) has asked me to extend an invitation to you to come visit with him at the White House for a working meeting to discuss both our shared security interests as well as our close cooperation on seeking peace between Israel and its neighbors, Emanuel told Netanyahu.
In mentioning shared security interests while announcing Netanyahu's visit, Emanuel appeared to be referring to the U.S. and Israel's shared desire to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In Washington, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor announced Abbas's visit, which had been widely expected, but said no firm date had yet been set.
The president looks forward to a visit from President Abbas in the near future. We're just working out timing, Vietor said.
Abbas aides were not immediately available for comment but the Palestinian leader told France 24 television this week he had been invited to the United States and thought the meeting would probably be in June.
NO BREAKTHROUGH EXPECTED
Getting the two sides to revive negotiations, after an 18-month break, marks Obama's most tangible Middle East achievement since he took office last year. But expectations remain low for any kind of breakthrough.
Netanyahu, who heads a coalition dominated by pro-settler parties, including his own, has rejected a total freeze on Jewish settlement building in territory captured in a 1967 war.
But no new Israeli housing projects in East Jerusalem have been approved since March, raising speculation Netanyahu has imposed a de facto moratorium that could avoid friction with Washington and any showdown with far-right coalition partners.
Earlier that month, Israel embarrassed Washington and angered Palestinians by announcing during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden a project to build 1,600 homes for Jews in Ramat Shlomo, in an area of the occupied West Bank
it annexed to Jerusalem.
Palestinians see settlements as an obstacle to the creation of a state they seek to establish in the West Bank, where Abbas holds sway, and in the Gaza Strip
, an enclave controlled by Hamas
Islamists opposed to the U.S. peace efforts.
Netanyahu last saw Obama in March in a low-profile White House meeting that was portrayed in Israel as a snub to its leader because it did not include the usual photo opportunity afforded visiting foreign leaders.
Israeli media predicted Obama would try in the coming talks to portray the relationship in a warmer light, ensuring photos are taken and possibly holding a news conference with him.
Since their frosty March meeting, Obama has been at pains to reaffirm publicly Washington's commitment to Israel's security.
Israel and the West fear Iran's uranium enrichment is aimed at producing an atomic bomb, an allegation Tehran denies. (Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Tom Perry; editing by Andrew Roche and Cynthia Osterman)