Obama plays down Middle East hopes
US President Barack Obama is playing down expectations for a peace breakthrough in the Middle East during his upcoming trip to Israel, telling American Jewish leaders that he will not be carrying a "grand peace plan" when he arrives in the region later this month.
Mr Obama, in an hour-long private meeting at the White House, acknowledged that near-term prospects for peace are bleak, according to a person who attended the discussion. But the president said a deal with the Palestinians remains the only way for Israel to achieve long-term security.
Israel's political climate makes the prospects for jump-starting peace talks all the more unlikely during Mr Obama's trip. Elections in January weakened Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who since then has struggled to form a coalition government.
In addition to his meetings with Netanyahu, Mr Obama will hold talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. He told the Jewish leaders that he would emphasise to Mr Abbas that peace remains possible, though very difficult given the current climate in the region.
Mr Obama added that pursuing sweeping peace talks now would be premature, given that Israel is still working to form a new government. But he added that does not preclude him from launching a peace effort in six months or a year, according to the person in attendance.
Mr Netanyahu recently asked Israeli president Shimon Peres for a two-week extension to build the coalition, putting his new deadline just ahead of Mr Obama's expected arrival in Israel.
The White House has not announced the dates for the president's trip, although Israeli news media have reported he will arrive on March 20. Mr Obama will also make stops in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and Jordan.
The US president sought to restart peace talks in 2011, but the effort collapsed within weeks. Palestinians refuse to resume negotiations unless Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu says talks should resume without any preconditions, and he has allowed stepped-up construction in the territories since the United Nations moved to recognise a de facto state of Palestine in November.
The White House did not put the meeting with Jewish leaders on the president's public schedule. A White House official later said Mr Obama sought input from the leaders on his trip and underscored that it would be an opportunity for him to speak directly to the Israeli people.
Marc Stanley, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was among those who attended the meeting. He said Mr Obama reiterated his "unshakeable support for Israel and explained that his upcoming trip will be focused on discussing with his Israeli counterparts the critical issues facing the Jewish state, including Iran, the peace process and Syria".