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Obama to make his first presidential visit to Israel in spring

February 05, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Edmund Sanders
  • President Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2011. The pair will meet in Israel for the first time this spring.
President Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

WASHINGTON – President Obama plans to travel to Israel this spring, making his first trip of his presidency to the close U.S. ally.

White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed the trip Tuesday, although he offered no dates and few details. Carney said the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the visit on a Jan. 28 phone call. The president will also visit Jordan and the West Bank on the trip, he said.

News of the impending visit first broke in Israel, where it drew big headlines. Many there have felt snubbed by the lack of a presidential visit since Obama took office. He visited as a candidate in 2008.

Obama has taken flack at home as well. Republicans have used his absence from Israel as evidence of the rocky relationship between the two leaders and a growing rift between the nations.

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Some pundits speculated that Obama’s trip might portend an impending breakthrough in restarting stalled peace talks with Palestinians, since previously Obama administration officials have signaled that he would only come to help kick-start negotiations.

Such sentiments, however, might be overly optimistic given the deep divisions between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over Israel’s expansion of West Bank settlements and the fact that Netanyahu has not yet even picked his coalition partners in the next government.

Carney did not specifically cite the stalled negotiations as a reason for the presidential visit.

“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,” the spokesman said. “And to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including, of course, Iran and Syria.”

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has signaled in the last few weeks that Mideast peace is his top priority, and in his first few days on the job he’s already talked by phone to Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

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Netanyahu was dealt a blow last month in a parliamentary election that resulted in a virtual tie between the right and center-right and denied him a political mandate.

An official in Netanhayu’s office said Obama and Netanhayu agreed that the visit “would be an important opportunity to emphasize the friendship and strong partnership of the countries.”

Hennessey reported from Washington; Sanders reported from Jerusalem.

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