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President Obama to make first Israel trip

06 February 2013, 14:39

Washington - President Barack Obama will go to Israel in March, the White House said on Tuesday, marking his first visit to the staunch US ally since becoming president. While in the region, Obama will make stops in the West Bank and Jordan.

Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the visit to Israel in late January, when Obama congratulated Netanyahu on his success in Israel's recent election. The White House has not released the date of Obama's trip or details about Obama's itinerary, but Israel's Channel 10 reported that the trip had been scheduled for 20 March.

"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 National Security Council Spokesperson Tommy Vietor.

White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Obama would work closely with Palestinian Authority and Jordanian officials on regional issues during his visit to Jordan and the West Bank.

Obama's trip to Israel, coming shortly after the start of his second term, could offer an opportunity to repair a notoriously strained relationship with Netanyahu. But the trip is almost certain to raise expectations for the type of peace initiative that eluded Obama and his foreign policy team during his first four years in office.

Obama has in the past warned against setting expectations too high for a breakthrough in stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Improving image

Although Obama visited Israel and Jordan while running for president in 2008, he hasn't been back since, drawing intense criticism from some pro-Israel groups who have claimed he is insufficiently supportive of the United States' closest Mideast ally.

Other top administration officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have visited, and Clinton's replacement, John Kerry, is expected to travel to Israel on his first Mideast trip.

For Obama, the trip might also be a chance to improve his image within Israel, where many view him as not supportive enough of the Jewish state.

Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem had no immediate comment on the report of Obama's visit. Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the visit was important given Obama's expressed interest in playing a role in Mideast peace efforts.

"We hope that this is more than just a symbolic visit, but with a clear message and clear commitment to the genuine substance and imperative of peace," Ashrawi said.

The announcement of Obama's visit comes at a time of uncertainty for Netanyahu who emerged weakened from January's election but will remain in charge if he can build a governing coalition before the mid-March deadline.

Long time in the making

The emergence of a new centrist party in Israel's election offered hope to those urging the hawkish Netanyahu to make peace with the Palestinians a higher priority.

Negotiations have remained frozen during Netanyahu's previous four-year term, in part because of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim for their future state.

Obama's upcoming trip was a long time in the making. In July, when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was hammering Obama on Israel, Obama's campaign said that if he were re-elected, he would visit Israel during his second term.

Then Romney himself made the trip, where Netanyahu hosted Romney as if he were already a world leader. Netanyahu denied backing either candidate but was widely perceived as preferring Romney.

But the tenuous chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu was clear from early in Obama's first term. On one visit to Washington, the US-educated Netanyahu appeared to lecture Obama on the pitfalls of peacemaking, and gave a speech to Congress in which he appeared to be rallying support against Obama.

For Obama, starting his second term out on firmer ground with his Israeli counterpart could also make it easier to co-ordinate on a number of pressing regional issues of critical concern to both nations. These include Iran's nuclear programme and Syria's ongoing civil war, plus lingering questions about what kind of partner Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi will be in efforts to bring stability to the region.

"Obama knows that he's going to have a lot of conversations with Netanyahu this year," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Those conversations will be easier conversations if Obama connects with the Israeli public and demonstrates what he believes, which is that he has their back."



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