Obama to visit Israel in spring; Mideast peace, Iran on agenda

WASHINGTON Wed Feb 6, 2013 4:03am IST

U.S. President Barack Obama calls on Congress to pass a small package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the larger, automatic ''sequester'' cuts from going into effect during an announcement in the White House briefing room in Washington February 5, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

U.S. President Barack Obama calls on Congress to pass a small package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the larger, automatic ''sequester'' cuts from going into effect during an announcement in the White House briefing room in Washington February 5, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans to visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this spring, the White House said on Tuesday, raising the prospects of a new U.S. push to restart long-stalled Israel-Palestinian peace efforts.

Obama's trip, his first to Israel since taking office, signaled that he intends to make the volatile Middle East - where Iran remains locked in a nuclear standoff with the West and Syria is caught up in a bloody civil war - a top priority in his second term.

While the White House gave no exact dates for the trip, Israel's Channel 10 television station cited unnamed sources in Washington saying Obama would start his visit to the Jewish state on March 20.

The choice of Israel, a close U.S. ally, for Obama's first foreign travel since his January 21 inauguration will give the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a chance to try to repair their notoriously fractious relationship.

Their dealings have been especially testy over the past year because of differences over how to best confront Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Netanyahu is now occupied with forging a new governing coalition after center-left challengers made surprising gains in last month's elections, something that Obama's aides believe could strengthen his hand with the hawkish prime minister.

But with Israel and the Palestinians deeply at odds over how to resume negotiations that broke down more than two years ago, any new U.S. peace effort would face major obstacles.

Obama and Netanyahu discussed the president's coming trip in a January 28 telephone call, the White House and the Israeli prime minister's office said.

"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," the White House said.

Netanyahu's office said only that the leaders had discussed a visit timed for after a new Israeli coalition takes shape.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would also visit the West Bank to meet Palestinian leaders and travel to Jordan, which has suffered fallout from the Syrian conflict. Jordan's King Abdullah, a key U.S. ally who will likely meet Obama, has been a player in past U.S.-led Middle East peace initiatives.

EARLIER PEACE EFFORTS FELL APART

Obama's itinerary suggests that his administration may be preparing a new peace bid. Word of the coming trip followed calls by incoming U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday stressing the U.S. commitment to peacemaking.

Obama's early efforts to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fell apart amid mutual acrimony in 2010, followed by accelerated Israeli housing construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem - land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Obama was reluctant to pressure Netanyahu during the 2012 U.S. election campaign for fear of undercutting support among Jewish voters and other pro-Israel constituencies. Now that he no longer faces re-election constraints, he may be ready to take a tougher tack despite the likelihood of drawing fire from Republicans who have questioned his commitment to Israel.

Israel's Channel 10 said Obama's visit would focus on restarting peace talks, but White House officials would not confirm that.

Also expected to be high on the agenda would be Obama's efforts to convince Netanyahu to hold off on any attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

Obama's tensions with Netanyahu have been aggravated by Netanyahu's demands for U.S. "red lines" on Iran's nuclear program - something the president has resisted, though he has insisted military options are on the table if sanctions and diplomacy fail.

Netanyahu has insisted he will stick to the red line laid down in September, when he told the United Nations that Tehran should not have enough enriched uranium to make even a single warhead. He gave a rough deadline of summer 2013.

Obama visited Israel as a presidential candidate in 2008 but drew Republican criticism for not traveling there in his first term. His Republican predecessor, former President George W. Bush, also waited until his second term to go to Israel.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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