US President Barack Obama will visit Israel in less than two weeks whether or not a government has been formed, the White House said on Friday.
Obama is scheduled to make his first presidential visit to Israel on March 20, and will visit the West Bank and Jordan as well during his three-day stay. The White House clarified that the president’s visit does not aim to influence the formation of the Israeli government.
“The formation of the Israeli government is the responsibility of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and other senior officials of the Israeli government,” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at a press conference.
Netanyahu is tasked with forming a government coalition by March 16. Should he failed to present a new government in time, President Shimon Peres will either tap another politician as presumptive prime minister, or call another round of elections. But all signs Friday night were that this would not be necessary.
Netanyahu is reportedly in the final stages of cobbling together a coalition agreement with Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. Talks between Netanyahu and Lapid on Friday yielded progress towards reaching a coalition agreement, according to representatives from both parties. Lapid is likely to serve as finance minister, with Bennett as minister of industry and trade, and other ministries now being finalized. The Likud-Beytenu-led coalition will likely number 70 of the 120 Knesset members, including Yesh Atid, Jewish Home, Hatnua and Kadima.
Meanwhile, Hamas Prime Minister in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniyeh said Friday that Obama’s visit would not bring the necessary breakthrough for the Palestinians, Israel Radio reported. He added that Obama’s visit will focus on regional developments and renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which he claimed would harm the resolution of internal Palestinian disagreements.
Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party have been at odds with one another since the 2006 Palestinian elections and the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza in a violent coup. Reconciliation attempts have thus far yielded no tangible results.
Haniyeh called on Abbas not to fall into the trap of restarting negotiations with Israel before resolving the internal disagreements between the Palestinian parties.
Obama is reportedly hoping to arrange a summit during his visit with Netanyahu, Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Netanyahu and Abdullah have reportedly agreed, while Abbas is demanding an Israeli commitment to a settlement freeze.