Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday in an effort to ease tensions between the two allies.
It will be the fifth meeting between the leaders and the first since a deadly commando raid on a flotilla trying to break through Israel's blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Obama on the day after the raid but returned to Israel to deal with the crisis instead.
Since then, international pressure on Israel to lift the blockade has intensified, including calls by European and Middle Eastern leaders for Obama to take a tougher line with Netanyahu.
But a key Israeli official told The Washington Examiner that another part of Netanyahu's White House mission will be to seek Obama's help in bringing Palestinian leaders to direct negotiations with Israelis instead of indirect talks currently being held through the president's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.
"The issue of Gaza will be at the top of the list," the Israeli official said. "First and foremost, the prime minister will address the issue of getting to direct talks with [Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]. We cannot discuss core issues just through the office of George Mitchell. We need face-to-face. We need the administration to try to bring [Abbas] to the table."
On Monday, Israel released the new list of goods that could enter the Gaza Strip, easing restrictions on consumer goods. The decision came after U.S. pressure to allow construction materials to help rebuild the war-torn area. Israeli officials announced that all imports, with the exception of "weapons, war material and dual-use items," would be allowed into the area.
But Israel is far from making apologies regarding the May 31 flotilla incident in which nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed trying to repel an Israeli boarding party. The blockade runners sailed under Turkish flags, and many of those killed by the boarding party were Turkish citizens. The incident has severely strained the relationship with Israel's former allies in Istanbul and put Netanyahu's government on the defensive.
But Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was emphatic about Israel being in the right, saying at a Monday press conference: "We don't have any intention to apologize. We think the opposite is true."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu weighed in, saying his country won't wait "forever" for Israel to apologize. He threatened that Turkey would cut off its relationship with Israel if the demand is left unanswered or if Israel refuses to abide by the findings of a pending U.N. report on the incident.
"They have three choices," Davutoglu said, according to the Turkish newspapers. "They can apologize, they can accept an international commission and its report or relations will be severed."
U.S. officials persuaded the Palestinians to begin indirect negotiations with Israel through Mitchell earlier in the year. He is attempting to bring the two for complete one-on-one negotiations by the fall, a U.S. official said.
At a cabinet session on Monday, Netanyahu told members that he has been willing to meet with his Palestinian counterpart Abbas "from the first day of this government ... because there is no other way to advance peace."
Dan Shapiro, the White House National Security Council's senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a conference call with reporters that the White House is hoping to move toward a two-state solution.
Shapiro said that "these talks have been really quite substantive. We've engaged with both sides on all the core issues that are relevant to this conflict. And we've always viewed the proximity talks as a mechanism to get to direct talks, which is where the real negotiations toward agreements and ultimately an agreement that will produce a two-state solution can be achieved."
Iran will also be high on the list of items being discussed by the two leaders.
The Israeli official said Israel has "signed on to President Obama's policy and strategy vis a vis Iran" but noted "sanctions alone are not enough."
Netanyahu is also expected to address the Obama administration's concerns over previous Israeli plans of expansion in the Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in disputed East Jerusalem.