NETANYAHU HELPS EASE WHITE HOUSE TENSIONS…. Anyone who pays even passing attention to the Middle East knows better than to feel optimistic about such issues, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at least said the right things today, which represents a departure from the recent past.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel used a fence-mending session with President Obama on Tuesday to say that he intends to take “concrete steps” in the coming weeks to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process “further along in a very robust way.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s comments, made in the Oval Office with Mr. Obama by his side, came after a 90-minute session — a highly symbolic meeting that both men hoped would project an image of unity after months of reports of tension and discord between them. Even the photograph of them was important: the last time they met at the White House, the mood was so sour that cameras were not allowed.

This time, the two men shook hands vigorously as Mr. Obama, who blamed the discord on exaggerated press reports, declared that “the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.” Mr. Netanyahu quoted Mark Twain, if a bit loosely.

“The reports about the demise of the special relationship aren’t just premature, they’re just flat wrong,” the prime minister said.

ABC’s Jake Tapper noted the significance of one phrase in particular: “Netanyahu appear[ed] to suggest that in the ‘coming weeks’ he will take steps that could convince the Palestinians of the value of moving to direct peace talks.”

With a moratorium on settlement construction expiring in a few months, such a timetable matters. Indeed, Netanyahu added, “[W]hen I say ‘the next few weeks,’ that’s what I mean. The President means that, too.”

Netanyahu went on to say that it’s “high time” to transition from proximity talks between Israelis and Palestinians to “direct talks.” The prime minister said, “I think with the help of President Obama, President Abbas and myself should engage in direct talks to reach a political settlement of peace, coupled with security and prosperity. This requires that the Palestinian Authority prepare its people for peace — schools, textbooks, and so on. But I think at the end of the day, peace is the best option for all of us, and I think we have a unique opportunity and a unique time to do it.”

As for the violent raid near Gaza, the subject did not come up during the media availability, though Obama did note in his opening remarks that Gaza was discussed during their private meeting, with the president noting “progress” on Israel “allowing more goods into Gaza.”

Postscript: For good measure, also note that Netanyahu, perhaps inadvertently, stepped all over the far-right line on Obama’s speech last year in Cairo.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.