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February 5, 2013 11:28 pm
President Barack Obama plans to visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan in the spring of this year in a sign that he may be intending to give a new push to the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
The White House said on Tuesday that Mr Obama had discussed a visit with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a telephone call last week. It said no exact date had been set for the trip, which would be the first time he had been to Israel.
Mr Obama pledged to go to Israel during his re-election campaign, when he was accused by Republicans of snubbing an important ally. The planned trip comes shortly after Israel’s own elections, which are likely to keep Mr Netanyahu in power but in a weakened position.
The visit – which would also probably be the US president’s first overseas foray of his second term in office – will give Mr Obama an early opportunity to try to improve his tense relationship with Mr Netanyahu as well as to discuss the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear programme. It comes as John Kerry, the new US secretary of state, has indicated that he intends to make the stalled peace process one of his priorities.
Analysts say Mr Obama does not want to go down as the US president who was in power when the idea of a two-state solution became impossible. However, any moves to give the peace process fresh impetus faces formidable obstacles, including widespread regional instability.
Mr Netanyahu and his political rivals barely discussed the issue in the election campaign, focusing either on the economy or broader regional security issues. Opinion polls show more than half of Israelis favour peace with the Palestinians but that most also think achieving it is impossible under existing conditions.
However, at the weekend Mr Netanyahu called on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to return to the negotiating table. This came as the Israeli prime minister began talks to form a coalition after an election that saw his rightwing Likud Beitenu bloc lose a quarter of its seats, with Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party emerging as the second-largest party in the Knesset.
As of Saturday, Mr Netanyahu had up to six weeks to form a government. While he could ally himself solely with rightwing parties, most analysts expect him to seek a broad alliance including centrist parties such as Mr Lapid’s in order to tackle an array of domestic and international policy issues, including a growing budget deficit and Iran’s nuclear programme.
In another possible sign of easing tensions, Israel last week released about $100m of tax revenues it owed the Palestinian Authority, citing the “financial hardship” it faced. Israel had been withholding the money as retaliation for the Palestinians’ successful campaign last year to seek non-member observer state status at the UN.
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