President Barack Obama will visit Israel for the first time as president this spring, reports on Monday said.
Obama visited Israel last as a senator seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. The New York Times quoted White House Spokesman Jay Carney saying that the president accepted an invitation to visit Israel during a Jan. 28 conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that the trip will be a chance to “discuss the way forward” on problems in the region, including the civil war in Syria and Iran’s production of nuclear materials.
The trip will also include visits to the West Bank and Jordan, Carney said.
Obama’s new secretary of state, John Kerry, plans to visit Israel in March.
Netanyahu suggested in September that spring would be his deadline to decide whether to strike Iran to keep it from obtaining a nuclear weapn. The Obama administration is leading Western efforts to bring Iran into negotiations to make its nuclear plans more transparent.
Iran denies planning a weapon, although western intelligence agency have accumulated much evidence that such a weapon is in the development stages.
Kerry said during his confirmation hearings that one of his priorities would be reviving moribund Palestinian Israeli peace talks, and suggested that whatever Israeli government emerged after the Jan. 22 elections would be more amenable to such talks than its predecessor.
Netanyahu, who led the last government, is currently in talks to set up a new one, and has indicated he would prefer a centrist coalition likelier to engage in peace talks than his last government.
The details of the president’s Middle East itinerary and the trip’s focus are “unclear,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The mission may limit itself to Israel and the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Jordan, or may expand to include the issues of ferment in Egypt and Syria, Hoenlein said.
J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” Jewish-American organization that is an alternative to AIPAC, said in a prepared statement that it “hopes his trip will lead to an early resumption of efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution.”
“After two-and-a-half years of deadlock in the peace process, this trip is indeed welcome news,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ari said. “It’s important that this be a very substantive, rather than a ceremonial visit. We hope President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas will seize this opportunity.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council said it “is thrilled” about the visit. “We are proud of the President’s unprecedentedly pro-Israel record and this upcoming trip will provide President Obama with yet another opportunity to affirm the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel.
“We commend both the President and the Secretary [of State] for placing Israel and its security needs at the top of the Administration’s foreign policy agenda for President Obama’s second term,” the NJDC said.