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US-Israel ties: Why Obama wants more from Netanyahu

President Obama hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House today for the first time since March, when he humiliated Mr. Netanyahu amid a US-Israel flap over settlements.

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"The deal that Obama is going to present to [Netanyahu] is extension of the settlement freeze in return for direct negotiations,'' says Gershon Baskin, the co-director of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "The Americans are extremely nervous about Sept. 26."

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Netanyahu's goals and constraints

Extending the building moratorium is risky for Netanyahu because of potential criticism from his right-wing and religious coalition partners, and he is expected to request a quid pro quo from the US. But if he renews building, he could risk losing the center-left Labor party, which would destabilize his coalition and shift the administration to the right.

But progress in talks would also help the Israeli prime minister deflate some of the diplomatic pressure Israel has faced after nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed May 31 by Israeli commandos who besieged an aid ship aiming to break Israel's Gaza blockade.

At a reception for US Independence Day at the residence of the US Ambassador to Israel, Netanyahu reiterated his desire to meet Abbas at any time or in any place.

The US has been mediating indirect talks since May. The Arab League and the Palestinians approved the talks, subject to an assessment in four months – presumably early September.

On Friday, Obama adviser Daniel Shapiro said, "Talks have made progress and the gaps have been narrowed." He didn't go into details.

What Abbas wants

Palestinian President Abbas, meanwhile, has made a direct appeal to the Israeli public by granting a rare group interview to correspdondents for Israel's four major daily newspapers. He said he still sees the hard-line government as a partner for talks, though he accused Netanyahu of dragging his feet.

"[Netanyahu] has completely ignored everything we've raised," said Abbas, according to the daily Maariv newspaper.

Abbas told the Israeli daily newspapers that he's open to stationing international peacekeepers in the West Bank to help satisfy Israel's security concerns, but rejects an Israeli military presence. He's also open to modifications to land swaps based on the 1967 Israel-West Bank border – a position that would allow Israel to annex some large settlements in return for land elsewhere.

Despite Abbas' reluctance to engage Netanyahu directly until now, the Palestinian leader may do so eventually in order to pave the way for a US compromise plan that would further pressure Israel.

Palestinians know that they have "to check off that box of direct talks'' before the US will publish a peace plan,'' says David Makovsky, coauthor of a book on Middle East negotiations called "Myths, Illusions and Peace.'' "The Palestinians want to look like they've made every good faith effort on the peace process.''

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