Jerusalem (AP) – President Barack Obama's chief of staff on Wednesday invited the Israeli prime minister to the White House next week, in a sign that strained relations between the two allies are beginning to thaw.
Rahm Emanuel, who was in Israel for a private visit, extended the invitation during a meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Officials in Netanyahu's office said the White House meeting would take place next Tuesday, after the Israeli leader wraps up a previously scheduled trip to Canada.
Emanuel told reporters the talks would focus on security issues, a likely reference to the Iranian nuclear program, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The president is "asking to extend an invitation to you to come visit him at the White House for a working meeting to discuss both our shared security interests as well as our close cooperation in seeking peace between Israel and its neighbors."
The meeting will give Obama and Netanyahu a chance to repair a relationship that has been strained since the two men took office last year.
Obama gave Netanyahu a cool reception during his last visit to Washington, even skipping the usual photograph session with reporters at the start of their March 23 meeting.
Relations between the U.S. and its top Mideast ally took a hit earlier that month when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new homes in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden. The announcement infuriated the U.S. and temporarily derailed plans to restart peace talks under American mediation.
Obama has pressured Netanyahu, who leads a conservative nationalist government, to halt Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – captured territories that the Palestinians claim for a future state along with the Gaza Strip.
Under heavy pressure, Israel has since put the housing project on hold and imposed an unofficial construction freeze in east Jerusalem. Netanyahu has also announced a 10-month slowdown on construction in West Bank settlements.
The Israeli gestures helped clear the way for the launch of the U.S.-brokered, indirect peace talks earlier this month.
Next week's meeting is expected to address shared concerns about Iran's nuclear program, which Israel, the U.S. and much of the international community believe is ultimately aimed at the development of nuclear weapons – a charge that Tehran denies.
Both countries have reacted skeptically to an Iranian proposal – brokered by Brazil and Turkey – to swap low-enriched uranium for fuel rods to power a research reactor. A similar plan proposed by the U.N. in October was intended to deprive Iran – at least temporarily – of the opportunity to use its stockpile of enriched uranium to build a bomb.
On Tuesday Netanyahu called the deal "a transparent Iranian trick meant to distract world public opinion from sanctions by the Security Council against Iran."
In Washington, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Wednesday that Obama will also meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "in the near future," but no date has been set.
In a related development, Israel said Wednesday it would begin compensating West Bank settlements for damages incurred because of the construction slowdown.
Interior Ministry spokesman Roi Lachmanovich said the state will send around $10 million to settlements to make up for lost revenues from families who would have come to live there had the construction proceeded.
Also Wednesday, the Israeli parliament gave preliminary approval to bills that would strip privileges, like family visits and televisions, from Hamas prisoners held by Israel.
The measures are meant to pressure Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers to free an Israeli soldier captured nearly four years ago by Hamas-linked militants.
Sgt. Gilad Schalit's captors have barred any access to him and have allowed him to send messages only a few times since he was seized in June 2006.
In violence early Wednesday, Israeli warplanes pounded suspected militant targets in the Gaza Strip, wounding 15 people, including seven Hamas police, Palestinian hospital officials said.
The Israeli military said it scored direct hits on a pair of tunnels that militants were planning to use to attack Israel.
The airstrikes came hours after Gaza militants fired several mortar shells toward southern Israel and blew up an explosives-laden donkey cart near the border. No Israelis were wounded in the attacks.
Two months after a chilly White House visit, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been invited at short notice to hold another meeting with President Obama next week.