Obama TACKLES mID eAST

WASHINGTON - US president Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are holding private White House talks, seeking to forge a personal bond despite differences over Middle East peace and Iran.

WASHINGTON - US president Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are holding private White House talks, seeking to forge a personal bond despite differences over Middle East peace and Iran.

Netanyahu drew up to the doors of the West Wing of the White House yesterday in a limousine bearing the Israeli and US flags, ahead of one-on-one talks with Obama, an expanded meeting with aides and a private luncheon.

The leaders were scheduled to spend an hour together in the Oval Office in a bid to forge a closer relationship in their first meeting since both came to power, before calling their security aides into the room.

The talks are expected to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, efforts to stall Iran's nuclear drive and Syria.

Netanyahu is also set to have a working dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday.

The White House meeting marks Obama's most testing diplomatic challenge after he made it clear that he would vigorously push for a peace deal based on a Palestinian state - and seek to defuse Iran's nuclear drive through diplomacy.

Netanyahu, at the head of a hawkish Israeli governing coalition, was set to unveil his own long-awaited policy for regional peace focused on countering Iran, and has yet to back Obama's call for a Palestinian state.

The Israeli prime minister's national security advisor Uzi Arad told reporters that the Iranian issue was set to top the leaders' talks.

"There might be some differences in approach, but we are confident that the sense of pragmatism and the desire for progress will drive the discussions," Arad said.

Obama himself admitted in March that Netanyahu's election did not make peacemaking any "easier."

Netanyahu is expected to further irk his hosts and the Palestinians by telling Obama that Israel will keep building in existing settlements in the occupied West Bank, a key obstacle in the stuttering peace process. - Sapa-AFP

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