Obama plans first Israel visit as president
President Barack Obama plans to soon make his first trip to Israel as US leader to confer on the Iranian nuclear showdown and to soothe his delicate relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The White House said Tuesday that Obama also plans to stop to talk to Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and to travel to Jordan on his trip, which will bring him close to the turmoil threatening to tear Syria apart.
It will also come as the United States mulls whether to make a new effort to revive stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, though political conditions on neither side seem conducive to dramatic progress.
The president faced fierce criticism during his re-election campaign last year for not having visited Israel as president, though George W. Bush also waited for his second term to visit the Jewish state.
Obama has a fractious relationship with Netanyahu, and there has been open disagreement between the two men on the imminence of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, and Israeli settlement building and talks with Palestinians.
The White House said that Obama discussed a visit to Israel with Netanyahu on the phone on January 28, and will likely arrive after the Israeli leader finishes assembling his new governing coalition after last month's election.
"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," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
"Additional details about the trip -- including the dates of travel -- will be released at a later time."
Israeli media reported that Obama would begin his visit to Israel on March 20.
White House spokesman Jay Carney meanwhile said that Obama would also travel to the West Bank, which is ruled by the Palestinian Fatah faction and to Jordan, where he will renew his friendship with King Abdullah II.
The itinerary mirrors a portion of a trip Obama made when he was a senator running for president in 2008, but the region has changed out of all recognition as violence and dislocation have followed the Arab Spring uprisings.
A high-ranking Palestinian official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the Obama visit would follow a trip to the region by his new Secretary of State John Kerry between February 15 and 16.
"We hope the visit will permit a relaunch of talks on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders," the Palestinian official said.
There was no immediate confirmation on the date of the Kerry visit from the State Department.
Obama angered Netanyahu during his first term by arguing that the shape of a future Palestinian state should be based on Israel's 1967 borders with land swaps to ensure a contiguous territory.
Netanyahu's Likud emerged as the strongest force after the Israeli election but the surprisingly robust showing by the centrist Yesh Atid party, which backs a two-state solution, may put pressure on the Israeli leader to countenance talks.
A statement issued by Netanyahu's office said the Obama visit would be an opportunity to underline the strong support and partnership between the United States and Israel.
At the top of the agenda will be the threat posed by Iran and the notion of either an Israeli or US military strike should international talks fail on what the West believes is Tehran's nuclear weapons program.
Obama and Netanyahu have been at odds over the impact of nuclear sanctions, which Washington says are hammering Tehran's economy -- though they have yet to prompt the Islamic Republic to fold at the negotiating table.
Israel has refused to rule out a unilateral military strike and Netanyahu warned at the United Nations in September that Tehran could have enough material for a first bomb by the middle of this year.
Obama, wary of another Middle East war, wants more time for sanctions to squeeze Iran into concessions, but has not ruled out the use of force.
He has repeatedly warned he will not allow Iran to get a "nuclear weapon" -- a more elongated timetable than Israel's position that Tehran should not be allowed to reach the "ability" to make such a bomb.
Netanyahu wants Washington to establish a "red line" for Iran but Obama has been unwilling to publicly box himself in.
Talks between Iran and world powers are due to resume in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 26 and Britain said Tuesday the Iranians would receive an "updated and credible" offer.