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Peace process to get a push on Obama’s Israel visit

REVIVING Middle East peace talks will be a key element of Barack Obama’s first trip as president, and despite US caution he will seek to build on the center’s strong showing in Israel’s election, analysts say.
The Palestinians were not mentioned when National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor on Tuesday announced Obama’s visit to Israel early in his second term and also his first as president.
Vietor noted only the “broad range of issues of mutual concern” Obama would discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “including Iran and Syria.” White House spokesman Jay Carney later said Obama would also visit the West Bank and Jordan.
Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel, also played down the Palestinian angle, and in an interview with army radio about the visit’s goals mentioned “the need to return Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table” only after twice stressing Iran and Syria.
He also said the American administration set “no conditions or demands” from the Israelis and Palestinians ahead of the visit, and stressed it would take place only after Netanyahu forms a new coalition government.
But commentators say the proximity of Obama’s planned visit to that of Secretary of State John Kerry, who is due in Israel and the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank later this month, leaves little doubt as to an intention to relaunch the peace process, dormant since September 2010.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he hoped Obama’s visit would mark the “beginning of a new US policy that will lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.” Washington’s caution on the professed goals of Obama’s trip aims at minimizing expectations on the thorny Israeli-Palestinian issue, in which the US president was less involved during his first term, analysts said.
“The president intends to give a push — perhaps a final push? — in an attempt to renew the peace process and to create an actionable plan for a final status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians,” Maariv’s political analyst Nadav Eyal wrote yesterday.
The announcement came as Netanyahu was negotiating a new coalition after the Jan. 22 general election, in which centrist parties that favor renewing talks with the Palestinians did well at the ballot box.
“The Israeli voter has veered toward the center. The prime minister, according to every analysis in Washington, is at the mercy of the centrist parties, which have a more moderate approach,” according to Eyal.
“The timing of the announcement applies enormous pressure on (head of centrist party Yesh Atid) Yair Lapid, (head of centrist party HaTnuah) Tzipi Livni and others to join the prime minister” in the new coalition.
Upon being formally tasked on Saturday night to form the new government, Netanyahu declared that the next coalition “will be committed to peace,” yet Obama remains suspicious of the Israeli leader’s intentions.
Relations between the two men have been markedly strained.
“It was no coincidence that the White House announced the visit in the midst of the coalition negotiations,” wrote Orly Azoulai in the daily Yediot Aharonot.
“The administration was signaling to Lapid and Livni that now is the time to be part of the government.” “He is coming to get the job done and he needs them on the inside,” she wrote.
The message appears to have been well received by Livni, the former foreign minister who led negotiations with the Palestinians during Ehud Olmert’s government between 2006 and 2008.
The main plank in her HaTnuah party’s campaign platform was the need to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, and Livni was the first politician on Tuesday night to welcome the US presidency’s announcement of Obama’s trip.