WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is playing down expectations for a Mideast peace breakthrough during his upcoming trip to Israel, telling American Jewish leaders that he won't be carrying a "grand peace plan" when he arrives in the region later this month.
Obama, in an hourlong private meeting at the White House on Thursday, acknowledged that near-term prospects for peace are bleak, according to a person who attended the discussion. But the president said a deal with the Palestinians remains the only way for Israel to achieve long-term security.
Israel's political climate makes the prospects for jumpstarting peace talks all the more unlikely during Obama's trip. Elections in January weakened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who since then has struggled to form a coalition government.
In addition to his meetings with Netanyahu, Obama will hold talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He told the Jewish leaders Thursday that he would emphasize to Abbas that peace remains possible, though very difficult given the current climate in the region.
In his meeting Thursday, Obama said pursuing sweeping peace talks now would be premature, given that Israel is still working to form a new government. But he added that doesn't preclude him from launching a peace effort in six months or a year, according to the person in attendance, who was not authorized to discuss the gathering publicly and requested anonymity.
Netanyahu recently asked Israeli President Shimon Peres for a two-week extension to build the coalition, putting his new deadline just ahead of Obama's expected arrival in Israel.
The White House has not announced the dates for the president's trip, although Israeli news media have reported he will arrive on March 20. Obama will also make stops in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and Jordan.
The president sought to restart peace talks in 2011, but the effort collapsed within weeks. Palestinians refuse to resume negotiations unless Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu says talks should resume without any preconditions, and he has allowed stepped-up construction in the territories since the United Nations moved to recognize a de facto state of Palestine in November.
The White House did not put the meeting with Jewish leaders on the president's public schedule. A White House official later said Obama sought input from the leaders on his trip and underscored that it would be an opportunity for him to speak directly to the Israeli people.
Marc Stanley, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was among those who attended Thursday's meeting. He said Obama reiterated his "unshakeable support for Israel and explained that his upcoming trip will be focused on discussing with his Israeli counterparts the critical issues facing the Jewish state, including Iran, the peace process and Syria."
While in Israel, Obama is also expected to note that Israelis live in an increasingly dangerous region, given the instability in Syria and the potential nuclear threat from Iran. He'll likely reiterate that all options, including military force, remain on the table for the U.S. when it comes to dealing with Iran, while also touting the impact of strict economic sanctions.