Obama to visit Israel for first time as president

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

President Obama will travel to Israel next month, the White House confirmed Tuesday. According to Israeli media Obama is scheduled to arrive March 20.

White House officials would not confirm the date. But Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed a possible visit in a phone call last month. It will be Obama's first trip to Israel as president, and comes as Israeli and Palestinian leaders are at odds over how to restart peace negotiations that have been dormant for more than two years.

Netanyahu's office said that he and Obama "spoke about a visit by the President to Israel after a new government is formed in Israel, and the two agreed that such a visit would be an important opportunity to emphasize the friendship and strong partnership between Israel and the United States."

Netanyahu's Likud Party emerged from the recent national elections as the largest bloc in Israel's parliament, meaning he will serve another term as prime minister. But a surprisingly strong showing by a new centrist party that - at least in principle - supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel has revived hopes for fresh negotiations and will likely put more pressure on Netanyahu to pursue such talks.

Obama, who angered Netanyahu and some of Israel's most ardent supporters in the United States with his approach to Middle East peace in his first term, may use the visit to push both Israelis and Palestinians toward negotiations. Iran's nuclear program, Syria's civil war, and the political flux that is rapidly remaking the broader Middle East will also be a part of the president's agenda.

"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," Vietor said in an e-mail.

Joel Greenberg contributed to this report. 

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.

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