Settlement strain

The lack of a prior invitation after Israeli officials had said over the past several weeks that Netanyahu was hoping to see Obama, was widely seen as a sign of strained relations between the two leaders.

Asked if the White House was trying to avoid highlighting the state of peace efforts by keeping television cameras out of the meeting, Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, dismissed the idea.

in depth

  Netanyahu outmanoeuvres Obama?
  Netanyahu 'speaks like a conqueror'
  Wanted: Middle East statesmen
  Settlements strain US-Israel ties
  US Jews and Israelis split on Obama
  Arab media judge Mitchell tour
  Q&A: Jewish settlements

"It's pretty safe to assume that the president thinks no less of the importance of the Middle East peace process simply by subtracting one television camera," he said.

The closed-door meeting between the US and Israeli leaders comes days after Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said he would not seek another term in elections that he has called for January.

Palestinian officials said Abbas's move last Thursday was due to his disenchantment with the US stance on Israeli settlements.

Speaking at a forum of North American Jewish leaders in Washington on Monday, Netanyahu said Abbas should "seize the moment to reach an historic agreement".

"Let us begin talks immediately," he said.

The Palestinians called off negotiations after Israeli forces began their assault of the Gaza Strip last December and January, and have refused to return to talks until Israel commits to a complete halt to settlement activity.

Mixed signals

The Obama administration appears to have eased US pressure on Israel over the settlements issue, calling for restraint in construction instead of the earlier push for a complete freeze of what Obama had called "illegitimate" settlements.

Palestinians say the apparent policy shift has killed any hope of reviving negotiations soon and Monday's White House meeting, though low key, is likely to further anger and frustrate the Palestinians.

Netanyahu has only offered a moratorium on the building of new settlements – meaning that settlement projects that have already received permits from the Israeli government will go ahead.

A senior Israeli official told the Reuters news agency that Netanyahu planned to tell Obama in their meeting that Israel was willing to be "generous in restraining" building in settlements in the West Bank to get peace talks started again.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, last week moved to clarify Washington's position on the settlements after she called Netanyahu's proposal for the moratorium "unprecedented", during a trip to the Middle East.

Those comments were interpreted by many Palestinians as US support for Israel's plan to continue several settlement projects on land that the Palestinians says should form part of a future state.

Clinton later said that the Obama administration still wanted a total freeze on all settlement building activity, but that it should not be a precondition for fresh talks between Israel and the PA.

Hours before the talks between Obama and Netanyahu on Monday, the White House said the US remained opposed to Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.

"The policy of the United States government for many decades has been: no more settlements, that's not something that is new [with] this administration," Gibbs said.

Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, was also in Washington on Monday for talks with Robert Gates, his US counterpart, and George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East.