Thursday, March 21, 2013

Iran, Syria to dominate Obama's 1st official Israel trip

Gali Tibbon / AFP - Getty Images

Employees arrange flags and carpets at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on Tuesday, ahead of Barack Obama's visit first visit to the country as president.

By Ian Johnston, Staff Writer, NBC News

Barack Obama was due to make his first visit to Israel as president on?Wednesday with Iran's disputed nuclear program and the crisis in Syria at the top of the agenda.

Obama was scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the two men ? who have not always seen eye to eye -- have a private dinner at Netanyahu?s home Wednesday evening.

The prospect of Iran getting nuclear weapons, the civil war in Syria and the stalled peace process with the Palestinians are likely to be the main topics of discussion.

Netanyahu is expected to attempt to get Obama to agree to define a ?red line? for Iran ? the point in its nuclear development at which military action will be taken to stop it from getting an atom bomb. Last week, Israel?s President Shimon Peres described Iran as ?the greatest threat to peace in the world.?

Israel also fears Islamist factions among the rebels fighting Syria?s Bashar Assad could seize control of the buffer zone between the two countries from the United Nations and threaten Israel with chemical weapons and long-range rockets captured from the regime.

On Thursday, the president will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, where he can expect a mixed reception.

"It's not a positive visit," Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is led by Abbas, told Reuters.

Ammar Awad / Reuters

Palestinian demonstrators hold placards, some depicting President Barack Obama dressed as an Israeli soldier during a protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday.

In Ramallah on Tuesday, Palestinian police scuffled with scores of demonstrators protesting against Obama's visit.

Obama is likely to offer reassurance that the U.S. still supports the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

However, little progress on the peace process is expected during the trip.

'Horrible conclusion'
In an editorial Wednesday, the Haaretz newspaper said it would ?take a good bit of imagination to expect a breakthrough over the next two days.?

?Here lies the central danger of the visit. The Israeli government and public could conclude, based on the polite tone of the president and the lack of a threat or demonstrative pressure, that Israel is now exempt from having to initiate steps toward resuming the peace process,? it wrote.

?This would be a horrible conclusion. Obama and the United States are not a party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president of the United States is not the one who must live in a society that is being transformed as a result of the occupation and pushed to the margins of the international community,? it added.

Former NSC spokesperson Tommy Vietor and Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, discuss what's at stake with President Barack Obama's trip to Israel and debate whether he will be able to repair a fractious relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Jerusalem Post said that there would ?admittedly? be ?little if any headway? on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, its editorial said the visit would be more than just a ?charm offensive,? given the war in Syria and the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful means only.

?As the leader of the Jewish people, who have been threatened with destruction by Iran?s leaders, Netanyahu wants assurances that the U.S. will launch a military strike if necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran,? the Post wrote.

?Ideally, he would also like to define a mutually agreed upon ?red line? or the point at which it has been determined that diplomacy and sanctions are useless and military action must be taken,? it added.

Obama will be in the Middle East until Saturday and, in addition to the talks, he will view an ?Iron Dome? air defense missile launcher, a?U.S.-funded system, which has helped protect Israelis from Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.

President Barack Obama leaves Tuesday for his first ever trip to Israel as president and the White House is already lowering expectations for that visit. The New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller, USA Today's Susan Page and The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus discuss.

He will also lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance for victims of the Holocaust, and visit the Church of the Nativity with Abbas.

On Friday, he will go to Amman, Jordan, for talks and a dinner with King Abdullah. On Saturday, Obama will take a walking tour of the ancient city of Petra before flying home.

Some questioned whether the trip would achieve anything.

"This seems to me to be an ill-scheduled and ill-conceived visit," Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank, told Reuters.

"On the Iranian situation, Israel and the USA don't seem to have anything new to say to each other. On Syria, the Americans don't have a clear outlook, and on the Palestinian issue, they are taking a step back and their hands off."?

Reuters contributed to this report.

President Obama makes his first trip to Israel where he will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.


Rough ride ahead for Obama as Palestinians, Israelis lukewarm over visit

Israel to grill Obama over possible military strike on Iran

Plenty to discuss as Obama heads to Israel

Syria chaos looms large over Obama's Israel trip


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