PARIS - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's low-profile White House visit, widely portrayed as frosty, in fact broke the ice in his relations with President Barack Obama, a senior Israeli official said on Wednesday.
And since the meeting on Monday, Washington has been keeping the pressure on Palestinians to resume peace talks without an Israeli settlement freeze first.
Netanyahu, who has withstood U.S. pressure to halt settlement construction, was ushered into the Oval Office after nightfall for a session at which, contrary to normal practice with a visiting Israeli leader, reporters were not allowed in.
Back home in Israel, newspapers seized on the low-profile White House visit as a snub, a sign of strained relations between Obama and Netanyahu, who had rejected his calls for a halt to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
It was actually an ice-breaker, said a senior Israeli official, who accompanied Netanyahu on his U.S. visit and to France, where the prime minister planned to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
At the meeting, Netanyahu and Obama established a real rapport, the official said, noting the two men spoke alone for more than hour.
Another Israeli official added: They spoke about concrete moves on the Palestinian track in the near future. He did not elaborate.
The low-key nature of the Oval Office visit, Israeli officials said, was partly aimed at not upsetting the Palestinians -- already angry over what they see as U.S. backsliding on the settlement issue -- or undermining Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Echoing Netanyahu's remarks in Washington the day before, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told U.S. Jewish leaders on Tuesday that Israeli-Palestinian talks, suspended for nearly a year, should get under way without preconditions.
No one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the goal of a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world, Emanuel said.
Abbas has rejected Netanyahu's proposal, praised last week by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to limit temporarily construction in West Bank enclaves to 3,000 homes.
Judging by Abbas's remarks in a speech on Wednesday, he is making at least a show of not listening. Settlement expansion must come to a complete stop, he said, before talks can resume.
Much will depend on Abbas's political future. He has said he would rather not run for re-election in January, citing a softening in the U.S. position on settlements -- in 10 months in office, Obama has gone from demanding a freeze to merely restraint.
Many suspect Abbas is bluffing about both threatening to quit and even about holding elections that his Hamas Islamist rivals in the Gaza Strip have rejected. But doubts will linger.
Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's national security adviser, attributed the change in Washington's tone toward settlements by saying on Wednesday that the United States was a pragmatic nation that understood and respected Israel's red lines on the issue.
Netanyahu's position on settlements, Arad told Israel Radio from Paris is supported by a majority of Israelis and the United States recognizes that.
My goal is not to have endless negotiations. My goal is not negotiations for negotiations sake. My goal is to reach a peace treaty, and soon, Netanyahu said in a speech in Washington.
He repeated his demand that any Palestinian state have no army: Any peace agreement we sign today must include ironclad security measures that will protect the State of Israel.
For Netanyahu, and for all Israeli governments since the 1967 war in which Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, that means no return to pre-conflict lines. It is a position reflected in the expansion of settlements Israel aims to hang on onto under a peace deal but which angers Palestinians who see such building as pre-judging the outcome of negotiation.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)