Obama to visit Israel and the West Bank

 

McClatchy Newspapers

President Barack Obama will travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this spring, the White House said Tuesday, amid signs the administration is interested in revisiting stalled Middle East peace talks.

The trip would be Obama’s first visit to Israel as president; he traveled there and to the West Bank as a presidential candidate in July 2008.

It comes as he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both embark on new terms in office, amid renewed turbulence in the Middle East, and represents an opportunity to forge a different relationship. White House officials said Obama discussed the potential trip when he called Netanyahu on Jan. 28 to congratulate him on the Israeli election.

“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,” said Tommy Vietor, the White House spokesman for the National Security Council.

No date for the trip has been announced, though Israeli press reported that Obama would arrive on March 20.

The president also will travel to the West Bank and Jordan “to continue his close work with Palestinian Authority officials and Jordanian officials on bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.

The visit comes as incoming Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed interest in reviving the peace talks, which largely stalled in 2010. Kerry, a former senator who started his new job this week, spoke over the weekend with Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

He also suggested at his Senate confirmation hearing last month that the U.S. needed to find a “way forward” to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

Analysts say Netanyahu was weakened by a January election that saw Israeli centrists gain seats in the Parliament, and that “could very well be the reason why they (the administration) see this as an opportunity to at least go out and put a toe in the waters to see whether that’s going to make any difference in the otherwise obstructionist attitudes on the part of the Netanyahu government,” said Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former State Department policy and intelligence analyst.

Obama and Netanyahu have had a frosty relationship since the president took a tough early stance in his first term against Israel’s building of settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank. Political analysts suggested that the upcoming visit was critical to salvaging the relationship.

“You have a region in turmoil and it’s hardly the time to expect a breakthrough, but if (Obama’s) interested in preserving the opportunity, he’s got to find a way to come to terms with (Netanyahu),” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. “It has much less to do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue and much more to do with the reality that he’s not going to get anywhere on the Middle East without finding a better way to reach an understanding with Netanyahu.”

There’s also likely some domestic politics at play.

Netanyahu, who had been friends for decades with Obama’s Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, made no secret of his pro-Romney leanings. Additionally, Republicans have long sought to siphon reliably Democratic Jewish voters from Obama, criticizing him for not visiting Israel in his first term and underscoring his strained relations with Netanyahu.

“Cynically, you could make the case even if there’s no prospect of serious peacemaking, it’s good domestic politics for the Obama administration to improve the cosmetics of its relationship with Israel,” said David Mack, a Middle East Institute scholar and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

Both in Syria and Iran, Israelis have pressed for a more muscular response. The United States has warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that it views the use of chemical weapons against rebels as a “red line” for possible military intervention. But Israel’s threshold for taking action – as illustrated last week with an Israeli airstrike on Syria – appears to be lower, and aimed at a wider variety of potential threats.

Likewise, the two countries share unease about Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, though Netanyahu has pressed the administration publicly to take a harder line against the threat posed by the nuclear program. Obama has said he hasn’t ruled out calling for military action to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon.

But in March 2012, he urged Israel and its supporters to refrain from “loose talk of war” and allow diplomacy and “crippling sanctions” to work.

David Goldstein of the Washington Bureau contributed.

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark

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