Obama’s visit to the Mideast turns spotlight on challenges

President Barack Obama is being careful not to raise expectations for a major breakthrough in the stalled Mideast peace talks when he visits Israel next week. The timing isn’t right for the kind of grand plan that would bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the bargaining table.

However, the president is correct in his assessment that a deal with the Palestinians remains the only way for Israel to achieve long-term security.

Nonetheless, the symbolic nature of Obama’s visit to Israel, the first of his presidency, and to the West Bank and Jordan cannot be underestimated. The United States remains the only country with the ability and credibility to serve as honest broker in the Middle East.

While the relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been strained, both leaders realize what’s at stake given Iran’s push to develop nuclear weapons, the civil war in Syria, and the political instability in Egypt.

In Israel, Netanyahu has been preoccupied with forming a new government after being weakened in the elections in January. He asked Israeli President Shimon Peres for an extension to build the coalition, which was put together last week.

In announcing the overseas trip, the White House said Obama’s second term and 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 Iran and Syria.”

Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama has never been warm, but it turned even colder after the White House refused embrace the “red line” the Israeli prime minister has drawn with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Obama administration has insisted that economic sanctions must be giving a chance to work, but it also has publicly stated that military action remains an option should the ayatollahs in Tehran decide to build nuclear weapons that would pose a direct threat to Israel.

Iran will undoubtedly occupy a prominent place in Obama’s agenda for talks with his Israeli counterpart.

But the restarting of the peace process will also dominate the discussions.

Much to the chagrin of the Americans, and the anger of the Palestinians, Israel is continuing to build settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

De facto state

The Israelis see the United Nations’ recognition of a de facto state of Palestine as being a threat to its security and a barrier to a long-lasting peace agreement.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have refused to resume negotiations, which collapsed in 2011, unless Israel stops building settlements.

Against that backdrop, there is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained from Obama’s visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

So long as the American people and Israelis don’t have unrealistic expectations about Obama’s visit to the Middle East, the president should be able to accomplish the goal of speaking directly to the people of that part of the war-torn world.

While there won’t be any major pronouncements coming out of the presidential visit, he will have opened the door to his administration tackling the huge challenge of Israeli-Palestinian peace, persuading the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions and finding a solution to the Syrian civil war.

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