WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that he expected direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to begin “well before” a moratorium on settlement construction expired at the end of September, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pledged to take “concrete steps” in the coming weeks to get the talks moving.
The president’s comments, after a 79-minute, one-on-one session in the Oval Office, were the first in which he articulated a timetable for peace negotiations. They also reflected a palpable shift in the administration’s approach to a relationship that has been rife with tension since soon after Mr. Obama took office.
The meeting was laden with theatrics as the men shook hands vigorously in front of the cameras after a series of steps by the Israelis over the past few days to reduce tensions with the United States. But it was also deeply substantive, the leaders’ aides said, with Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu touching on a wide variety of contentious issues, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program, as well as the peace process.
A single session in the Oval Office is not likely to have resolved a year and a half of deep policy differences, and the two leaders could hit more bumps in the months ahead, especially if Mr. Obama grows impatient with a lack of progress in the peace process. But on Tuesday, they sought to accentuate the positive.
After publicly pressing Mr. Netanyahu for months to curb the building of Jewish settlements — an American policy that fanned resentment in Israel — Mr. Obama pointedly did not push Mr. Netanyahu to extend the existing moratorium. Instead, he said that moving from American-brokered “proximity talks” to direct talks would give Mr. Netanyahu the incentive and domestic political leeway to act on his own.
“My hope is, that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Mr. Obama said, adding, “There ends up being more room created by more trust.”
The Palestinian Authority reacted cautiously to the meeting, saying that it, too, wanted direct talks, but that the onus was on Mr. Netanyahu to halt the building of settlements and to agree on negotiations that would resume where the last direct talks, in 2008, left off.
“It is about words not deeds,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, by phone late Tuesday. “We need to see deeds.”
Tuesday’s much-publicized meeting in the Oval Office was in stark contrast to the frosty reception Mr. Netanyahu received during his last trip to the White House in March, when Mr. Obama left the prime minister waiting in the Roosevelt Room while he went upstairs to have dinner with his wife and daughters.
The mood was so sour then that Mr. Obama barred news cameras. On Tuesday, photographers clicked away in the Oval Office as Mr. Obama praised the prime minister as someone “willing to take risks for peace” and blamed the press for reports of discord. Mr. Netanyahu loosely quoted Mark Twain, saying, “The reports about the demise of the special relationship aren’t just premature; they’re just flat wrong.”
In another gesture to the Israelis, Mr. Obama emphasized that there had been no shift in American policy on Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program, despite the United States’ signature on a recent United Nations document that singled out Israel for its refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, binding 189 countries.
Israeli officials were alarmed by the American decision to allow Israel to be named, which came at the prodding of Arab states. Some in Israel viewed it as a sign of the unreliability of the United States, Israel’s most important ally.
Mr. Obama also tried to soothe Israeli jitters about calls for a regional conference on a nuclear-free Middle East. Any such meeting, he said, would only be a discussion of regional security, not an opportunity to press Israel on its nuclear program.
“We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us — against it, that Israel has unique security requirements,” Mr. Obama said, briefly correcting himself in midsentence. “It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region.”
The source of the friction during Mr. Netanyahu’s last visit was Israel’s announcement, during a visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., that it was approving plans for Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Now, settlements are again at issue, but the president’s modulated response seemed intended to return the American-Israeli relationship to one in which difficult issues are thrashed out in private, rather than through public lectures.
Some analysts suggested that Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu might have reached a private understanding that Israel would extend the construction moratorium in return for direct talks.
“This enables Israel to say it didn’t pay for direct talks, but there’s an understanding that once the expiration date rolls around, the moratorium will be extended,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Among the other “concrete steps” Israel is expected to take toward the Palestinians, analysts said, is greater cooperation with the Palestinian Authority on security matters and increased economic aid for the West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu has suggested to aides that he has other steps in mind, Israeli officials said, but he has not yet disclosed them.
Mr. Obama’s stance reflected domestic political pressures on both men. Mr. Netanyahu, who is struggling to keep his fractious right-wing coalition together, has been under pressure at home not to appear to pay an additional price to lure the Palestinians to the negotiating table.
And with Democrats facing a tough time in the midterm elections in November, Mr. Obama has reasons for softening his public stance on Israel. Republican candidates have been courting Jewish voters, who ordinarily back Democrats, by trying to portray the president as anti-Israel.
Some analysts say Tuesday’s session reflects what Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator, calls a “false calm” in the relationship. Mr. Miller predicts fissures in the relationship, the result of a “fundamental expectations gap” in which Mr. Obama expects more from the peace talks than Mr. Netanyahu will be able to deliver.
For now, though, Mr. Netanyahu is receiving, if not the red-carpet treatment, at least the customary cordialities that the United States extends to friendly world leaders. The Israeli flag was flying Tuesday over Blair House, the official guest residence, in a sign that Mr. Netanyahu was staying there; in March, he was quartered blocks away, at the Mayflower Hotel.
And this time, Mr. Netanyahu was treated to a meal: after their Oval Office session, the president and the prime minister and other top officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, convened in the Cabinet Room for a “working lunch.”
In the Oval Office, Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Obama that, after repeated trips to the United States, it was time to “redress the balance” by having the president and the first lady visit Israel.
“I’m ready,” Mr. Obama replied.