Israel's prime minister has arrived in Washington DC for talks with the US president as the two leaders seek to downplay tensions over Israeli plans to build housing settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.

Barack Obama will host Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday, with discussions expected to focus on the deadly Israeli raid on an aid flotilla, the blockade of Gaza, talks with the Palestinians, expanding Israeli settlements and Iran.

The last time the two men met, Netanyahu was reportedly denied the privileges normally granted to visiting foreign dignitaries, including the ritual hand-shake photograph.

But this meeting is likely to be a warmer affair than in March, with news coverage and a White House lunch planned for after their meeting.

Dan Shapiro, a White House adviser, said that discussions in Washington will focus on "the progress that's been made so far in the proximity talks [with Palestinians] and the opportunity to make the transition into direct talks".

'Ready to meet'

Netanyahu is expected to tell Obama that he wants direct talks with the Palestinian leadership over the stalled peace process.

"I am ready to meet [Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas today and tomorrow and the next day at any place," he said last week.

Direct negotiations have been frozen since December 2008, when Israel launched a 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians.

With mid-term elections scheduled in the US for November, Obama and other politicians are keen to appear close with Israeli leaders, as Democrats draw significant support from pro-Israeli groups in American domestic politics.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, met on Monday where they discussed "continuation of security co-ordination and economic co-ordination".

Both sides, however, said that the talks were separate from any direct or indirect negotiations on the preace process.

The March visit was soured by Israel's announcement of plans for 1,600 new housing units in occupied East Jerusalem during a visit by Joe Biden, the US vice-president, a move Washington called "insulting".

'Heart of the conflict'

Fawaz Gerges, a professor at London School of Economics, said that "the settlements lie at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict".

"This Israeli government has not given the international community, the American government or the Palestinian authority any reason to believe they are serious about the peace process," Gerges told Al Jazeera.

Yossi Shain, a profesor from Tel Aviv University, agreed that settlements were crucial, but told Al Jazeera that all parties must move on and recognise Israeli concessions on the issue.

"Netanyahu is the democratically elected leader of Israel, he already froze settlements and has to move ahead with Mr Obama," he said.

Last November, the Israeli government announced a 10-month suspension of new settlement building in the West Bank, but the move failed to bring the Palestinians, who want a complete cessation of settlement construction, to the negotiating table.

Netanyhu and Obama are also expected to discuss Iran, where the US has recently imposed new sanctions.

'Iranian threat'

"Netanyhu is trying to convince the president that the Iranian threat tops any kind of a peace settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Gerges said.

"This has been a consistent Israeli strategy for the last two years.

"What the Americans now are saying is, and this is a very important point, is that what happens in the Israeli-Palestinian theatre affects the national security of United States.

"Many voices in America now are saying Israel represents a strategic liability rather than a security asset for the United States."

Shain said that the Palestinian conflict was only peripherially linked to the Iranian issue and was one area where the Israeli and US administration were currently in agreement.

"We have seen tremendous rapprochement on this [Iran issue]," he said.

"There is agreement on this issue. The sanctions that were imposed by the congress and signed by the president are certainly in line with the Israeli demand."