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Obama, Netanyahu meeting to avoid specifics, settlements

From NBC's Ali Weinberg
In anticipation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit with President Obama next week, senior White House officials said the meeting will focus on broad topics relating to an ultimate Middle East peace plan, rather than specific issues that continue to vex Israeli-Palestinian relations.

In a conference call with reporters this afternoon, Daniel Shapiro, senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that the meeting Tuesday will be geared toward furthering indirect negotiations, known as proximity talks, currently in progress between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the U.S. special envoy to the region, George Mitchell.

The Palestinian Authority has said it will not engage in direct talks until Israel completely ceases building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Mitchell recently returned from his fifth round of talks, which began in May of this year.

A current freeze on new settlements is set to expire in September, but Rhodes said that while the moratorium has been "quite significant and contributed to progress so far," its expiration will not be discussed in Tuesday's meeting.

Shapiro added that the meeting will focus on "capitalizing on the momentum through proximity talks to continue to move forward and reach direct negotiations," adding that the administration views proximity talks only as a mechanism to get to direct negotiations.

The officials cited several recent policy changes that they say indicates movement towards face-to-face talks.

Shapiro praised Netanyahu's recent announcement that he would loosen restrictions on trade between the Israel-Gaza border. Israel issued a blockade on the region three years ago after the Islamist organization Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist regime, took over the strip of land, but the restrictions, meant to prevent Hamas from getting weapons, also limited the amount of food and construction supplies making its way into the region.

Netanyahu's loosening of the blockade came a few weeks after a violent incident in which 19 people were killed on a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the region. That sparked a new round of international pressure to allow more basic products into Gaza.

"The president welcomed those changes which we think are already making a significant difference in the lives of the people on the ground in Gaza," Shapiro said, adding that the announcement helped to "address what has been an unsustainable situation" for Gazan civilians.

The officials also touted the most recent round of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran, as well as Obama's signing of the Iran Sanctions Act, which the president said would "strik[e] at the heart of the Iranian government’s ability to fund and develop its nuclear programs."

While the officials said they were nearing ever-closer to reaching direct negotiations, they demurred on specifying a timeline, saying only that it would be "premature to speculate" on details of the discussions.

The officials also shot down any talk of a "rift" between Israel and the United States, citing support of its "qualitative military edge," as well as its funding of the Iron Dome missle defense program, as evidence of a "deepening of cooperation," according to Rhodes.