Published March 18, 2013
As President Obama heads to the Middle East this week, including his first visit to Israel since becoming commander in chief, the White House is downplaying expectations, saying the president hopes only to help leaders come together to bring peace and democracy to the region.
The president arrives Wednesday in Jerusalem, where he will try to improve his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the heels of a newly installed Israeli government.
Netanyahu was re-elected in January but didn’t reach a deal until Friday with rival parties to create a coalition government that adds centrist Yesh Atid and pro-settler Jewish Home parties but excludes the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties for the first time in a decade.
“President Obama looks forward to working closely with the prime minister and the new government to address the many challenges we face and advance our shared interest in peace and security,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Saturday.
Among the country’s biggest issues are ongoing efforts between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to reach a peace agreement and Israel’s effort to stop neighboring Iran for acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The White House's apparent strategy is to lower expectations to create breathing room for frank peace talks between both sides that hopefully will include discussions about what it will take to get back to the negotiating table.
Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, said Friday the administration is “willing to continue to play a facilitating role.”
However, he said, face-to-face talks will be difficult if the leaders continue with unilateral, or one-sided, action -- including Israel building settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said last week the president feels he has already been clear about the Iran situation: He prefers to resolve the issue peacefully but has established a so-called “red line” -- not allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu has questioned Obama's commitment to containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, including military action. And he infamously lectured Obama in front of the media during a 2011 meeting at the White House, then later made no secret of his fondness for Republican challenger Mitt Romney in last year's presidential campaign.
The West says Iran's program is aimed at developing weapons technology. Iran says its program is for peaceful energy purposes.
Netanyahu, in a speech to the United Nations in September, said Iran was about six months away from being able to build a bomb. Obama told an Israeli television station this past week that the U.S. thinks it would take "over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon."
The centerpiece of Obama's visit will be a speech in Jerusalem to an audience mainly of Israeli students. It's part of the president's effort to appeal to the Israeli public, particularly young people.
He will make several cultural stops in the region. They include the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem; the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a revered site for Christians; and an Iron Dome battery, part of the missile defense system for which the U.S. has helped pay.
Traveling to the West Bank, Obama will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah. Obama and Fayyad will visit a Palestinian youth center, another attempt to reach the region's young people.
Obama will make a 24-hour stop in Jordan, an important U.S. ally, where the president's focus will be on the violence in neighboring Syria. More than 450,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan, crowding refugee camps and overwhelming aid organizations.
For much of Obama's first term, White House officials saw little reason for him to go to the region without a realistic chance for a peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians. But with the president's one attempt at a U.S.-brokered deal thwarted in his first term and the two sides even more at odds, the White House has shifted thinking.
Beyond Mideast peace, Netanyahu and Obama have similar regional goals, including ending the violence in Syria and containing the political tumult in Egypt, which has a decades-old peace treaty with Israel.
Obama's visit to Israel may quiet critics in the U.S. who interpreted his failure to travel there in his first term as a sign that he was less supportive of the Jewish state than his predecessors. Republican lawmakers levied that criticism frequently during last year's presidential campaign, despite the fact that Republican President George W. Bush did not visit Israel until his final year in office.
In Obama’s talks with Jordan's King Abdullah, he also will try to shore up the country's fledgling attempts to liberalize its government and stave off an Arab Spring-style movement similar to the ones that have taken down leaders elsewhere in the region.
The president's final stop will be at Petra, Jordan's fabled ancient city.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.