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Analysis: Netanyahu, Obama tight and tension-free -- for now

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama walk together outside of the White House on Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama walk together outside of the White House on Tuesday.
  • Images from Obama, Netanyahu meeting were a marked contrast to Netanyahu's last visit
  • New message of unity made clear that U.S.-Israel relationship was back on track
  • Beyond the change in tone lies a series of contentious issues that U.S., Israel will have to confront
  • In Netanyahu's remarks, peace process rated a distant third to Iran and Israel's security

Editor's note: Since becoming State Department producer in 2000, Elise Labott has covered four secretaries of state and reported from more than 50 countries. Before joining CNN, she covered the United Nations. Follow her on Twitter at @eliselabottcnn

Washington (CNN) -- The images couldn't have been better if Benjamin Netanyahu designed them himself.

After months of leveling humiliating criticism at the Israeli prime minister, here was President Obama calling Netanyahu a man of peace, speaking of the "unbreakable" bond between the United States and Israel and essentially giving Israel a green light to skirt transparency in its suspected nuclear program, citing its "unique security requirements."

Gone were the bitter recriminations and the harsh demands to stop all settlement activity in the West Bank. Instead there was praise for the Israeli government for "working through layers of various governmental entities and jurisdiction" and showing "restraint" over the past several months.

To put an even finer point on the fact that the recent tension was a thing of the past and the two leaders were once again bosom buddies (actually, they never were, but they seem to be now), Obama even walked Netanyahu to his car after the meeting.

The images were a marked contrast to Netanyahu's last visit in March. Then, there was no press conference or even a photo-op, and it was widely viewed as a snub after the Israeli announcement of new settlement plans for mostly Arab East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel.

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The new message of unity made clear that the relationship between the United States and Israel, and that of their two leaders, was back on track.

It was the culmination of a new narrative months in the making. As he did with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama found his "tough love" approach toward Netanyahu was proving counterproductive. The U.S. push for a new United Nations Security Council resolution on Iran, Obama's recent signing of legislation imposing fresh U.S. sanctions against Tehran and his administration's efforts to push back pressure for an international investigation into the Gaza flotilla raid, which killed nine Turks, all helped to mend fences with Israel. Netanyahu's delegation left Washington satisfied that Obama understands Israel's security needs.

But beyond the change in tone evident for the cameras lies a series of contentious issues the United States and Israel will have to confront over the next several months. The details of what happens next are murky and could lead to renewed tensions in the fall when the 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank ends.

Both leaders agreed on the need to move from so-called "proximity talks," essentially consisting of shuttle diplomacy by Obama's Mideast envoy George Mitchell, to direct talks. But the conundrum is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to restart direct talks without a full settlement freeze, while Netanyahu is resisting extending the existing ban until talks start.

Obama set a deadline when he said talks should begin before the freeze ends in September, suggesting it could create a climate of trust building "in which everybody feels a greater investment in success."

The leaders also spoke of "confidence-building measures" both the Israelis and the Palestinians could take to create a better atmosphere for direct talks. Obama wants Israel to "widen the scope" of Palestinian security control in the West Bank beyond the current few cities, citing advances made by Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But it is unclear Israel is confident enough to expand Palestinian responsibilities.

Obama went out on a limb Tuesday, saying unequivocally that he trusts Netanyahu. The assumption is that he must have gotten some assurances in private from Netanyahu about steps he is willing to take.

But it was clear from Netanyahu's remarks that the peace process isn't issue No. 1 for him. Obama administration officials before the meeting, and Obama himself during his press availability with Netanyahu, emphasized that moving to direct talks was the most important issue on the agenda. But in Netanyahu's remarks, the peace process rated a distant third to Iran and issues of Israel's security.

If direct talks don't begin soon, experts believe the possibility of a breakthrough becomes less likely. The Palestinians are almost certain to refuse to sit down if the settlement freeze is not extended. And as the U.S. midterm elections approach, Netanyahu could gamble on Republicans making gains and weakening Obama's hand. Netanyahu himself is facing domestic hurdles, which make playing for time in his best interests.

The hope is that Tuesday's summit enabled the leaders to build a partnership which can help them move forward on the peace process. The proof of that will come at the first bump on the rocky road to September, when daylight appears between these two new best friends.