Obama to visit Israel within weeks

Israeli leaders welcome the news; details were agreed in a presidential phone call to Netanyahu last week; US advance teams already in Israel and West Bank

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 5, 2012 (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 5, 2012 (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

President Barack Obama is to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan in the next few weeks, at the heart of a wider tour of the Middle East.

Israeli television broke news of the trip on Tuesday night, and said the White House had confirmed it would take place next month or in April, and that the details were agreed by Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a January 28 phone call.

“The start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. “Additional details about the trip — including the dates of travel — will be released at a later time.” 

The Prime Minister’s Office also confirmed the meeting, saying the two leaders had agreed that Obama would visit once Netanyahu has built his new coalition.

US advance teams are already in Israel and the West Bank preparing for the visit, the Channel 10 news report claimed. The trip will be Obama’s first to Israel as US president; he visited in 2008 as a candidate.

Emanuel Rosen, the station’s experienced diplomatic reporter, said the visit indicated that Obama believes Netanyahu is ready to try to make substantive progress in negotiations with the Palestinians. Indeed, the report said, it was likely that areas of agreement on key issues had already been reached between the American and Israeli leaderships, since Obama had indicated in the past that he would come to Israel only when he truly believed it would enable a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The US, the TV report said, was pressing for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks “without preconditions.” That has been Netanyahu’s demand, while the Palestinians have demanded a West Bank settlement freeze.

The report said Obama had been considering a visit for later in the year, perhaps to coincide with an annual conference hosted by President Shimon Peres. The news that he was heading here as early as next month, the report said, underlined the sense of potential progress in the diplomatic arena.

The 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 confirmed by the White House.

The upcoming visit by the newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry  will also prepare the ground for Obama’s arrival.

The news of Obama’s visit came on the day that Israel swore in its 120-member new Knesset, following elections two weeks ago which left Netanyahu poised to forge a new governing coalition.

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.

Former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, head of the new Hatnua party, welcomed news of the visit, saying she hoped it would mark a resumption of peace talks. Livni is reportedly being wooed by Netanyahu to join his coalition. Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich said she hope the president’s trip would mark a “breakthrough” in contacts with the Palestinians.

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.

“With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation,” Goldberg wrote. “And if Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah — one that alienates even the affections of the U.S., its last steadfast friend — it won’t survive. Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term one.”

Goldberg added that, as regards Netanyahu’s handling of the Palestinians, “the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise.”

Goldberg said Kerry wants to try to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but Obama “is thought to be considerably more wary. He views the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as weak, but he has become convinced that Netanyahu is so captive to the settler lobby, and so uninterested in making anything more than the slightest conciliatory gesture toward Palestinian moderates, that an investment of presidential interest in the peace process wouldn’t be a wise use of his time.”

A presidential visit would suggest, however, that Obama has reconsidered.

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