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February 12, 2013  RSS feed
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Obama to make first trip to Israel as president

Syria, Iran – not new peace plan – to top agenda
JTA news service


President Obama shown placing a message in the Western Wall in July 2008 during his first presidential campaign. His expected return to Israel this spring will be his first visit as president. 
Photo by Avi Hayon/Flash90/JTA President Obama shown placing a message in the Western Wall in July 2008 during his first presidential campaign. His expected return to Israel this spring will be his first visit as president. Photo by Avi Hayon/Flash90/JTA WASHINGTON — President Obama’s visit to Israel this spring will focus on Syria and Iran, and he will not initiate new peace moves, the White House says.

“This is a trip the president looks forward to making that is timed in part because we have here obviously a second term for the president, a new administration and a new government in Israel, and that’s an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

“We expect that Iran and Syria will be topics of conversation, but I’m sure a variety of issues will be discussed, as they always are, when the president meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. And that is certainly the case when he meets with Palestinian Authority officials.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September said Iran could reach the point of no return with its suspected nuclear weapons program by the spring. Israel is also concerned that the embattled Assad regime in Syria could unleash its chemical weapons against rebels or transfer them to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and also that the chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists among the rebel groups.

Carney announced Tuesday, Feb. 5 that Obama would be mak- ing his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank sometime in the spring, but gave no specific date for the trip. He also will visit Jordan.

In a region where optics are important, Obama’s failure to visit during his first term as president was cast by his opponents as a sign that Israel was not a high priority for him. It did not help Obama’s popularity in Israel when he omitted the Jewish state from a June 2009 visit to the Middle East that included a major speech in Cairo and a stop in Saudi Arabia.

As much as anything else, the spring trip may be about reaching out to Israelis.

“I’m excited that President Obama is coming this spring to reaffirm the deep ties between Israel and the United States,” Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in a message in Hebrew on Twitter.

Netanyahu may have his own reasons for welcoming such a visit now. For one, a U.S. president on Israeli soil sends an unmistakable message to Israel’s enemies that America stands with Israel.

It also helps Netanyahu politically. Netanyahu emerged weakened from Israel’s Jan. 22 elections, and aides have told the Israeli media that they believe voters stayed away from the prime minister over concerns about his rapport with Obama.

The two leaders have had something of a fraught relationship. There have been philosophical differences about Israel’s settlement enterprise and the Palestinians, disagreements about the red line for Iran’s nuclear program and perceived snubs on both sides.

During a March 2010 White House meeting, Netanyahu was denied a photo opportunity with the president and Obama interrupted their meeting to eat dinner. Meanwhile, Netanyahu gave an enthusiastic reception to Obama rival Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign.

But the recent elections in both the United States and Israel could mark a turning point.

In recent days, Netanyahu has indicated that he wants to establish a coalition government that tends more to the center than his last government. He also has identified diplomacy with the Palestinians as one of his top priorities.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Obama’s choice for secretary of state, John Kerry, said in his Senate confirmation hearing that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace would be his twin priorities in the job. Kerry has since announced his own plans to visit Israel next month, and among his first calls in his new job were conversations with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It’s a new beginning: Obama can have a serious discussion with the Israeli prime minister at a time he’s heading a new government,” said Dennis Ross, a counsel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was Obama’s top Middle East adviser until a year ago.

“The president is interested in connecting with the Israeli public. It allows him to show he cares about the peace issues, but allows him to do so while discussing all the issues, including Iran, Syria and Egypt.”

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator who now is vice president of the Wilson International Center for Scholars, says both Obama and Netanyahu are being driven to a rapprochement by exigency: Netanyahu by his weakened political position and Obama by preserving his legacy.

“One guy is caught in circumstances which require improvement, and the other guy knows if he wants to get anywhere he’s going to have to figure out if he can work with Bibi,” Miller said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Debra DeLee, the president of Americans for Peace Now, said in a statement that Obama’s visit will give him an “opportunity to directly address the people of Israel and lay out a compassionate, pragmatic vision for a future Israel that enjoys security and peace, and that it is a respected member of the community of nations.”

But Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, said it would be best for Obama to use his Israel trip to discuss strategies at a time of Middle Eastern turmoil.

“If he’s president of the United States, he’s going to talk about Iran and Hezbollah and Syria,” Pletka said. “If he’s the president of Barack Obama’s dream house, he’ll talk about the peace process.”


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