WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he expected direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to begin "well before" a moratorium on settlement construction expires at the end of September, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pledged to take "concrete steps" in the coming weeks to get the talks moving.
The president's comments, after a 79-minute session in the Oval Office, were the first in which he articulated a timetable for peace negotiations. They also reflected a palpable shift in the administration's approach to a relationship that has been rife with tension.
The meeting was laden with theatrics as the men shook hands vigorously in front of the cameras after a series of steps by the Israelis over the past few days to reduce tensions with the United States. But it was also deeply substantive, the leaders' aides said, with both men touching on a variety of contentious issues, including Iran's nuclear ambitions and Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons program, as well as the peace process.
A single session in the Oval Office is not likely to have resolved a year and a half of deep policy differences, and the two leaders could hit more bumps in the months ahead, especially if Obama grows impatient with a lack of progress in the peace process. But Tuesday, they sought to accentuate the positive.
After publicly pressing Netanyahu for months to curb the building of Jewish settlements — a U.S. policy that fanned resentment in Israel — Obama pointedly did not push Netanyahu to extend the existing moratorium. Instead, he said moving from U.S.-brokered "proximity talks" to direct talks would give Netanyahu the incentive and domestic political leeway to act on his own.
"My hope is, that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success," Obama said, adding, "There ends up being more room created by more trust."
The Palestinian Authority reacted cautiously to the meeting, saying that it, too, wanted direct talks, but that the onus was on Netanyahu to halt the building of settlements and to agree on negotiations that would resume where the last direct talks, in 2008, left off.
"It is about words not deeds," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, by phone late Tuesday. "We need to see deeds."
Tuesday's much-publicized meeting in the Oval Office was in stark contrast to the frosty reception Netanyahu received in March. The mood was so sour then that Obama barred news cameras. On Tuesday, photographers clicked away in the Oval Office as Obama praised the prime minister as someone "willing to take risks for peace." Netanyahu loosely quoted Mark Twain, saying, "The reports about the demise of the special relationship aren't just premature; they're just flat wrong."
Meanwhile, the Israeli military indicted a soldier Tuesday on a charge of manslaughter during last year's war in the Gaza Strip. The soldier was among three troops, including a field commander, to face new disciplinary action stemming from their conduct during the offensive, which has drawn international condemnation for its civilian death toll. Around 1,400 Gazans, many of them civilians, were killed in three weeks of fierce urban fighting and aerial bombardments. Thirteen Israelis were killed.
In a statement Tuesday, the military said its chief prosecutor would indict an infantry sergeant for manslaughter in an incident in which two Palestinian women — a mother and daughter — were killed while reportedly holding white flags.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.