Obama heads to Israel to ease past tension

Obama's long-awaited visit on Wednesday, the debut overseas trip of his second term, may be marked more by symbolism than serious diplomatic substance and will expose diminished US ambitions of forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The president said he is carrying no new peace plans and instead intends to listen to Israel's new government and Palestinians disaffected with his approach, leading some experts to question why he is coming at all.

Air Force One landed in Tel Aviv on a four-day trip on which Obama will meet Israel's leaders, make a short visit to the West Bank and move on to Jordan to consult King Abdullah II.

The US president will come face-to-face with Israel's security challenge as soon as he steps off his plane by viewing a mobile battery of Israel's US-funded Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Then he will head to Jerusalem to visit President Shimon Peres before going into talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has had a prickly relationship.

During his visit, Obama will pointedly court symbolism as he will inspect the Dead Sea Scrolls and visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism.

The choreography is intended to show Israelis, Arabs and political foes back home that Obama is deeply committed to Israel's security and future, despite some scepticism about his motives.

Attitude towards Israel
A survey by the independent Israel Democracy Institute showed that while 51% of the Jewish Israeli respondents considered Obama to be neutral in his attitude toward Israel, 53.5% did not trust him to safeguard what they perceived to be Israel's vital interests.

So, mounting a charm offensive, Obama will deliver a speech to hundreds of young Israelis on Thursday.

Obama and Netanyahu will have to navigate an often difficult personal chemistry following previous spats, but the visit is unlikely to narrow differences over how soon Iran will have a nuclear weapons capability.

Obama told Israeli television that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon for "over a year or so".

Netanyahu warned last year that Iran would have the capacity to produce a bomb much earlier, within months from the current date, and questions whether sanctions will change Tehran's calculations.

The difference in "red lines" on Iran may reflect each side's differing capacities to launch meaningful action against Iran – but Obama will likely caution Netanyahu against an early Israeli strike.

While Obama will not bring a specific Middle East peace proposal, officials insist his commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians is undimmed.

Arab peace plan
Columnist Alex Fishman of Israel's Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper reported on Wednesday that Washington, pushed by new Secretary of State John Kerry, would revive the Arab peace plan of 2002.

The plan holds out the carrot of recognition for Israel from key Arab states in return for a Palestinian state and a withdrawal from the occupied territories, but has been deemed unworkable by Israelis.

Palestine's President Mahmud Abbas hopes Obama will help broker the release of more than 1 000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and wants $700-million in blocked US aid freed up.

Obama will tell the Palestinians that initiatives like seeking statehood recognition at the UN are counterproductive, while warning Israel that settlement building undercuts the chances of resuming peace talks.

But Palestinians want Obama to show more muscle in attempting to get peace talks restarted, warning that the settlement row that thwarted the last US initiative threatened the entire idea of Palestinian statehood.

Relative calm
"We are in an emergency situation," independent Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti told reporters in Ramallah.

"We don't have time," he said. "Either the settlements are stopped immediately … or you can kiss the two-state solution goodbye."

In Israel and Jordan, Obama will experience oases of relative calm in a region rocked by unrest spawned by the Arab Spring uprisings.

His refusal to provide arms or ammunition to disparate rebel groups battling forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, fearing they could be funnelled to extremists, will come in for particular scrutiny. – Sapa

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Stephen Collinson
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