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The Diplomacy of No Photo Ops

It's a tell-tale sign of strained relations between nations: when their leaders meet they forego the photo op.

There'll be no photo op this evening when President Obama hosts an Oval Office meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (pictured).

There was no photo op last evening when Vice President Biden had Netanyahu over for dinner.

And there was no photo op yesterday when Secretary of State Clinton dropped by Netanyahu's hotel.

It's not that the U.S. and Israel are no longer friends and allies. On the contrary:

"Let me assure you," Clinton said in her speech Monday to AIPAC, which bills itself as America's leading pro-Israel lobby, "for President Obama and for me, and for this entire Administration, our commitment to Israel's security and Israel's future is rock solid, unwavering, enduring, and forever."

But the relationship turned chilly when on March 9, Israel blind-sided Biden during his visit by announcing plans for the expansion of Israeli housing in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as their capital.

The White House formally condemned the Israeli decision and announcement, as did Biden. It was stunning that the administration would use the word "condemn" in connection with a decision by a friend and ally, but it reflected the depth of American irritation.

In the U.S. view, the Israeli announcement served to pull the rug out from under administration efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

"It undermines America's unique ability to play a role - an essential role - in the peace process," Clinton declared yesterday.

She said it "exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit." And she said the U.S. objected to Israel's settlement announcement because "we are committed to Israel and its security."

But addressing the same group last night, Netanyahu stood firm.

"Jerusalem is not a settlement -- it's our capital," he asserted. He received a prolonged standing ovation as he said Israel has built homes in Jerusalem for 3,000 years and would continue to do so.

Then why no photo ops? White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would only say that's the decision that was made for the meeting.

But he said the two leaders will "have a good discussion." And he sought to dispute the view that US-Israeli relations had turned sour.

"I can tell you that they're not frayed and that our bond with the Israelis is strong," he said.

Nevertheless, No photo op. No chance for reporters to ask the President and Prime Minister about where things stand.

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here:
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