Obama Plans First Trip to Israel as President This Year

President Barack Obama will make his first trip to Israel since taking office in the first half of this year, with stops planned in Jordan and the West Bank.

Obama discussed plans for the trip with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 28, and among the topics for their agenda will be the turmoil in Syria and the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday.

“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,” Carney said at a briefing.

Carney wouldn’t disclose the date for the trip. He said the president will travel “in the spring.”

Obama’s trip will take place “after the formation of a new Israeli government,” Netanyahu’s office said in a text message. Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a new ruling coalition after his Likud-Beitenu ticket won the largest number of parliamentary seats in elections on Jan. 22.

“President Obama very much respects the Israeli political process,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told Israel Radio today. “He won’t intervene in elections or coalition talks,” Shapiro said.

Red Lines

Obama visited Israel in 2008, when he was a candidate for president. He and Netanyahu have emerged from their re-elections facing the same differences over peace talks with the Palestinians and dealing with Iran that divided them in the past.

The tensions between the U.S. and Israel were evident in September. Netanyahu, 63, called for “red lines” to be set for military action if Iran continues to enrich uranium, while U.S. officials argued that would limit their options. The Obama administration has focused on tightening economic sanctions in conjunction with European nations.

The Israeli premier told the United Nations on Sept. 27 that he would extend his horizon for a strike against Iran from October to early this year. The next day, Obama, 51, said in a statement that the two leaders were in “full agreement.”

Settlements Issue

Obama also has criticized the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War.

After Israel took steps toward building an additional 1,500 homes on land claimed by Palestinians in December, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is “deeply disappointed that Israel insists on continuing this pattern of provocative action.”

Obama is coming to Israel without preconditions or demands, and is looking to consult with Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah on such as issues as the peace process, Iran and Syria, Shapiro said.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke down in September 2010 after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month building freeze in West Bank Jewish settlements. Abbas said he wouldn’t negotiate unless Israel stops its construction.

“We welcome President Obama’s visit, if it signals an American promise to become an honest and impartial peace broker,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Executive Committee, in an e-mailed statement.

“We therefore expect that this visit will rectify the failures of the past, demonstrate a newfound political will, and lead to urgent, substantive and serious action that will bring the Israeli occupation of the state of Palestine to an end,” she said.

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