US President Barack Obama will not set forth any specific demands in his upcoming visit to Israel, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said in interviews Wednesday.
Israel would be the first stop on the first overseas trip of Obama’s second term as president, Shapiro said, underlining to Israel and to the world the importance of the relationship between the two countries. The president, who is due in late March or April, once Israel’s new coalition is in place, will also visit the Palestinian territories and Jordan, he confirmed.
The ambassador explained that Obama intends to coordinate Israeli and US positions on some of the Middle East’s pressing issues, including the deteriorating situation in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program and the future of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The president’s visit will strengthen the ties between Israel and the US,” said Shapiro. “The United States has a special bond with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East,” he told Israel Radio.
The president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have “urgent” and “complex” issues to discuss, the ambassador told Army Radio, mentioning “our efforts to prevent Iran achieving a nuclear weapon,” to “prevent Syrian chemical weapons falling into dangerous hands” and to “bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table.” That’s why Obama would be coming so soon after the US and Israeli elections, he said. “It’s best to start as soon as possible.”
Elaborating on Iran, Shapiro said the US “is determined to ensure Iran not get nuclear weapons.” It would be preferable if this could be achieved via diplomacy and sanctions. “If not, we have a military option on the table.”
Israeli television broke news of Obama’s trip on Tuesday night; the White House quickly confirmed it would take place next month or in April. Shapiro confirmed that the details of the visit were discussed by Obama and Netanyahu in a January 28 phone call.
The TV report said Obama would be making “a working visit” and would not be accompanied by members of his family. His Middle East trip would also include visits to Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the TV report said, though this was not immediately confirmed by the White House.
US advance teams are reportedly already in Israel and the West Bank preparing for the president’s arrival. The upcoming visit by the newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry will also prepare the ground for Obama’s visit.
The trip will be Obama’s first to Israel as US president. He visited in 2008 as a presidential candidate.
Shapiro stressed that Obama has no intention of interfering with Israeli coalition talks ahead of the trip, and will not pressure Netanyahu to assemble a more moderate government.
“I don’t expect any such pressure,” Shapiro said. “President Obama respects Israel’s political process and will wait until the formation of the future government; only then will he make his visit.”
The ambassador also brushed aside claims of an ongoing personal rift between Obama and Netanyahu. “President Obama and Netanyahu both know how to work together,” said Shapiro. “The relations between the two are excellent, they have met more than ten times and have cooperated extensively with each other.”
Netanyahu and Obama have maintained a correct but sometimes obviously strained relationship over the years.
They have publicly differed over how to thwart Iran, with Obama refusing to accede to a call from Netanyahu to set “red lines” which, if crossed by Tehran in its nuclear weapons drive, would trigger US-led military intervention.
Last month, furthermore, days after Obama was quoted as castigating Netanyahu for ostensibly turning Israel into a pariah nation and threatening its long-term survival, Netanyahu hit back by declaring that if he were to capitulate to demands for a retreat to the pre-1967 lines, “we’d get Hamas 400 meters from my house.”
According to Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama had lately begun repeating the mantra that Israel under Netanyahu “doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”
The key focus of Obama’s reported criticism was Netanyahu’s settlement construction policies, which recently included plans for thousands of homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in response to the Palestinian Authority’s successful gambit to gain nonmember observer state status from the UN in November.
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio Wednesday that he doesn’t expect the upcoming visit to pressure the government on the Palestinian front primarily because restarting talks is already part of the Likud’s agenda.
“The prime minister has repeatedly said that we are willing to return to the negotiating table without preconditions,” said Shalom.
In recent days, Netanyahu has spoken often of a desire to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, and directly called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join him at the negotiating table. On Tuesday, in a speech to the new Knesset members, he vowed to steward a “prudent” diplomatic process, speaking of seeking agreements but also of maintaining Israel’s capacity to effectively protect itself against security threats.
Shalom stressed that the Palestinian issue was only part of the reason for the visit and that discussions on Iran were equally important. “We have to remember that his visit here is part of a wider regional tour in which the Iranian issue will take center stage,” he said.
Asked if Obama’s visit would play a role in the ongoing coalition talks, particularly if it would prevent the right-wing Jewish Home party from joining the government, Shalom said that he didn’t think so and that any party that joins the coalition must know that restarting peace talks is one of its central principles.