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Obama to visit Israel in spring

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to travel this spring to Israel for the first time since he took office as he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu try to move past the friction of the past four years now that both have won re-election.

By making Israel a destination on the first overseas trip of his new term, Obama hopes to demonstrate support for the Jewish state despite doubts among some of its backers. But the trip seems designed to signal a new start in a fraught relationship rather than as an ambitious effort to revive a stalled peace process.

"The start of the president's second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including of course Iran and Syria," Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said Tuesday.

Carney said Obama would also travel to Jordan and the West Bank. The Israeli media reported that he would arrive on March 20, but the White House would not discuss any dates for the trip.

Netanyahu's office said a visit would be "an important opportunity to underscore the friendship and strong partnership between Israel and the United States."

The relationship between the two leaders has been edgy for years over issues including settlement construction and how to stop Iran's nuclear program. Although neither said so publicly, each man may have secretly rooted for the other's opponents in recent elections, only to find that they both prevailed and now have to live with each other.

But while Obama won a clear victory in November, Netanyahu emerged from elections last month in a weakened state, winning enough seats to retain office but forced to recruit centrist lawmakers for a coalition that may temper his policies. He has until March 16 to present his new government.

Obama is not expected to unveil concrete proposals for bringing Israelis and Palestinians together during his visit nor initiate a specific new peace process. But advisers hope that just by showing up and talking about these issues he will show that he is not walking away from the dispute.

Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to Obama, attributed the trip to "a desire to connect with the Israeli public at a time when he can go and not have high expectations about having to produce something."

Also on the agenda for the trip will be Iran and the ongoing strife in Syria that threatens to descend into a wider regional conflict. Israel last week struck a convoy of anti-aircraft weapons inside Syria that it feared was being moved to Hezbollah forces.

Obama to visit Israel in spring 02/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 11:32pm]
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