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.