President Obama hopes to prod peace talks in Israel, West Bank

8:06 PM, Mar 19, 2013   |    comments
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By Michele Chabin, Special for USA TODAY

JERUSALEM - President Obama arrives here Wednesday on a high-profile trip to Israel to assure the Jewish state of U.S. commitment to stopping a nuclear Iran and boost the prospect of peace talks with Palestinians demanding their own state.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has set up a major welcome for Obama, who will visit Israeli military defensive installations, speak to Israeli students and meet Palestinian leaders in the disputed West Bank territory.

The White House said it does not expect significant agreements to come out of the trip, in which Obama will also visit Jordan. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Edward Djerejian says the trip is a chance to improve U.S. relations with Israelis and Palestinians and clarify where the United States stands on the tumultuous events of the Middle East.

Obama last visited the region in 2009, traveling to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He visited the Jewish state in 2008 as a presidential candidate.

"I'm a believer in the importance of the personal relationship and dialogue between leaders," said Djerejian, ambassador under President Clinton. "It's important they establish a working relationship ... that can be translated into possible action."

Since Obama last visited, the region has become more dangerous. A rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad rages in Syria. Iran is refusing to end its nuclear program despite U.N. sanctions. Islamist governments have gained power in Egypt and Tunisia, and Muslim militias backed by al-Qaeda are on the rise in North Africa and the Persian Gulf states.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have stalled. Israel says the Palestinian Authority refuses to negotiate over the portions of the West Bank that should go to a Palestinian state and those that should be part of Israel. Palestinians argue that Israel will not compromise to their satisfaction, so why negotiate?

Silvan Shalom, a Cabinet minister in Netanyahu's Likud Party, said a provisional agreement is possible.

"Our goal is to reach an agreement (even) if it is in stages," he said.

Obama arrives at a time when a recent media poll in Israel found just 10% of Israelis view him favorably - in light of his public bouts with Netanyahu, who asked Obama to set a "red line" on when military forces must be used against Iran.

"Obama is retreating from the Middle East, indifferent to the collapse of Egypt, uninterested in the return of al-Qaeda to Iraq, and he appears to have no blueprint for Iran other than more concessions," says Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. "So why's he going?"

Contributing: Oren Dorell in McLean, Va.

USA TODAY

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