Obama to make first trip to Israel, part of a potential ‘new beginning’ with region


In this July 6, 2010, file photo, President Obama, right, talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they walk to Netanyahus car outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

President Obama will travel to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories next month to make an early second-term push for peace negotiations between two divided governments and to assess the broader political developments remaking the Middle East.

It will be Obama’s first trip as president to Israel, where suspicions run high in the aftermath of his unsuccessful early efforts at Middle East peacemaking.

The choice of destination — one that Obama avoided in his first term — suggests a revival of his ambitions abroad after a year of virtual dormancy on foreign affairs. The timing also points to a willingness on his part to quickly reengage a politically volatile foreign-policy issue just months after winning his second term.

But the visit will highlight how much the region has changed since he last visited the Middle East in his first year in office, with the rise of Islamist governments and the widening repercussions of civil revolt.

After Obama helped topple Moammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, many in the region wondered when he would emerge again to help shape the course of the tumultuous Arab Spring, which has replaced a pair of U.S.-allied dictatorships with elected Islamist governments.

Within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much has changed since the direct peace talks Obama inaugurated in September 2010 collapsed within weeks. Israel’s recent battle with the armed Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip left many predicting a wider fight in the future, as divisions deepened within the Palestinian and Israeli electorates over whether talks or war would resolve the conflict.

“To make it a substantive trip that is more than a positive photo-op would require setting up a specific framework for an agreement and setting a tight deadline to achieve it,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, a nonprofit group that advocates the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

White House officials would not provide a date for Obama’s trip, which he will squeeze into the tight schedule he is building around a busy domestic agenda that includes immigration, guns and the economy.

But Israeli media reported that Obama is scheduled to arrive March 20 as part of a trip that will include a stop in Jordan, where the civil war in next-door Syria and its growing refugee crisis is presenting a major challenge to King Abdullah II, a U.S. ally .

Obama began his first term by making a strong push for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, believing the conflict fueled radicalism in the region in general and toward the United States in particular, given its historical support for the Jewish state.

In contrast to predecessor George W. Bush, Obama wanted to demonstrate to Arab governments that the United States would make demands of Israel in pursuit of a regional peace agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made little secret of his preference for Republican Mitt Romney in last year’s U.S. presidential campaign. Netanyahu and Obama have at times disagreed bitterly over issues relating to the Palestinians, including Israel’s continued settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel’s military occupied those territories, along with Gaza, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Palestinians view them as the key territorial elements of their future state.

In a June 2009 address in Cairo, a speech that asked for a “new beginning” with the Islamic world, Obama said: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” He also did not stop in Israel on that trip, instead visiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Germany, where he emphasized the horror of the Holocaust and the moral imperative of defending Israel. Romney, among others, made the omission a campaign issue.

But on regional security issues, Obama and Netanyahu have deepened cooperation amid rising U.S. military aid to Israel. Obama has agreed with Netanyahu that Iran must not be allowed to use its uranium-enrichment program to develop a nuclear weapon, an issue that the two will discuss during Obama’s visit.

Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged from elections last month as the largest bloc in Israel’s parliament, meaning that he will serve another term as prime minister. But a surprisingly strong showing by a new centrist party is likely to put more pressure on him to pursue talks.

“It was a mistake for Obama not to go in the first term at a time when it could have affected Israeli public opinion of him, and now, it has hardened against him to a point that I don’t believe it can,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as a senior Middle East adviser to Bush.

Obama’s visit will coincide with growing concern in the region that the two-state solution favored by him is in peril, as Israeli settlement construction continues and as the Islamist Hamas gains clout within the once-secular Palestinian nationalist movement. Hamas emerged stronger politically from the recent clash with Israel and continues to reject the Jewish state’s right to exist.

Hamas and its secular rival Fatah are due to meet Saturday as part of a reconciliation process. If an agreement is reached and Hamas joins the Palestinian Authority, Obama will be faced with an awkward decision on whether to meet with a government that includes members of a U.S.-
designated terrorist movement.

As he begins again in the region, Obama will be advised by new Secretary of State John F. Kerry. He has also named former senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, a nomination still in question after an unsteady performance by the candidate before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that focused in part on his past criticism of Israel.

“This trip is a signal that the president has an interest, not just in the peace issue, but also in the broader concerns that Israel is facing,” said Dennis Ross, a senior Middle East adviser to Obama during his first term who is at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “In some ways, it will be the president traveling to Israel to ask for a new beginning.”

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