Barack Obama phoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to tell him he plans to make his first trip to Israel as president this spring, the White House announced Tuesday morning.
The trip reportedly will begin March 20, just before Pesach, which begins five days later, will be an "opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds" between the two countries, said White House press secretary Jay Carney. Details will be announced in coming weeks, he added. The President is expected to visit Palestinian leaders in Ramallah as well.
This will also be an opportunity for Obama and Netanyahu, having recently won reelection, to make shalom after four friction-filled years.
No details have been release for Obama's trip. He needs to take a page from Bibi's playbook and speak directly to the Knesset and the Israeli people, let them see him in Israel and hear directly from him about his commitment to Israel's well-being , his vision for peace in the region and his commitment to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
It looks like Obama's advance man will be his new secretary of state, John Kerry, who told Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres in weekend phone calls that he plans to visit the Jewish state, possibly later this month, and a high priority for him will be reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He will be taking that message to the Palestinians as well.
Netanyahu's supporters and many in the Jewish community, including this writer, have criticized Obama for not going four years ago at the beginning of his first term. He made several trips near, around and over Israel but never stopped in. That failure was used by his opponents in last year's election to portray him -- falsely -- as hostile toward the Jewish state.
Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were the only recent presidents to visit Israel in their first terms; George W. Bush went late in his second term, and Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush never went.
Obama's decision to make the overdue trip to the Jewish state suggests Netanyahu may have given him some indication he is ready to resume talks with the Palestinians. The Prime Minster's decision probably had more to do with domestic politics than anything he's heard from Ramallah.
Netanyahu lost support in last month's voting but will still hang on to his job, but the star of the election was the man who came in second, Yair Lapid. As head of the new Yesh Atid party, he will play a major role in the new government. He has said he would only join a government committed to restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu indicated he is ready. He told Kerry in a weekend phone call congratulating the new secretary of state that his government "will be committed to peace" and renewing talks with Abbas will be a top priority.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians upped their conditions for negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has long insisted on a total freeze on all Israeli construction beyond the 1967 lines, and this weekend his chief negotiator added a new demand. He said returning to the peace table would be "lunacy" unless Israel also released all Palestinian prisoners. Abbas knows both are non-starters for the Israelis.
Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israel military intelligence and director of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, said in a conference call this morning the parameters of a peace agreement are well known but neither side appears ready to embrace them at this point. The greatest stumbling block will be on the Palestinian side, he said, which is not ready to accept Israel's basic requirements: declaring an end to the conflict and absorption of refugees within the Palestinian state.
Aaron Miller, a former U.S. Mideast peace envoy, wrote recently, "There is no conceivable Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the offing… The suspicions between Israelis and Palestinians are too deep, the gaps on the issues too big, and the political houses on each side too divided."
President Obama's visit, in the wake of the Israeli election, won't provide a breakthrough but it could be the catalyst for getting both sides back to the peace table.
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