Nothing significant expected of Obama's Mideast trip

Source:Xinhua Published: 2013-3-18 13:30:35

US President Barack Obama is set to start a three-day visit to Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and Jordan on Tuesday night.

It will be Obama's first trip abroad after he assumed the office of US president for the second four-year term in January.

However, no tangible results are likely to be achieved from the visit as Obama has ruled out any new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, and remained reluctant in committing any direct American military involvement in Syria's conflict and Iran's nuclear program.

Engagement with Hamas

When the trip was first announced, hopes were high that the president could help revive the moribund Middle East peace process. Yet Obama told an Israeli TV on Thursday that he has no grand peace plan and would only "listen" to both sides.

Back in early 2010, Obama persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into direct talks in Washington, but the negotiations broke down only weeks later when Israel refused to extend a ban on settlement building in the West Bank.

Since then, the Palestinians have obtained an elevated status through the UN General Assembly while Netanyahu has allowed expanded settlement activities both in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their future independent state.

Meanwhile, Obama's pressure on Israel for concessions on settlement building and his refusal to set a red line for American military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities have strained his relations with Netanyahu over the years.

In addition, the Middle East has undergone profound changes since Obama's last visit to the region in June 2009, with Washington's influence over the area declining.

The president, cognizant that he cannot do much for now, has chosen to put the peace process on the back burner, and focus instead on seeking a better relationship with Netanyahu while burnishing his image among the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In fact, as it is his first trip to Israel as president, Obama has with him a carefully prepared plan with the centerpiece being a speech in Jerusalem on Thursday afternoon to an audience mainly of Israeli students.

In the West Bank, apart from his meetings with Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah, the US president will visit a Palestinian youth center in an attempt to reach out to the young people there.

In Jordan, an analyst said, Obama himself or his staff would meet with people allied with the Hamas movement, which wrested control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 from Fatah, which now runs the West Bank.

"Because in the past year and a half or so there has been sort of secret preparation to bring Hamas on board and to give Hamas basically what we can call a Fatah image," Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs think tank, told Xinhua in an interview.

Hamas is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist group, but a peace agreement with Israel is unimaginable without its involvement.

Reconciliation agreements have been reached between Hamas and Fatah but failed to come to fruition.

"Remember Yasser Arafat was a terrorist one day, and he was in the White House the other day?" said al-Ahmed, referring to the late Palestinian leader. "This is going to be the same thing with Hamas."

"Israelis will come around"

In al-Ahmed's view, Iran and Syria are the pressing issues facing Obama in his upcoming trip.

Washington eyes Israel as its staunchest ally and a counterbalance in the region, while Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a direct threat to its existence.

The turmoil in Syria, which has slipped into its third year, is perceived as a potential threat to regional peace and stability.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in September last year, Netanyahu claimed that Iran was only six months away from having the ability to assemble a nuclear weapon.

However, Obama told Israeli TV on Thursday that it "would take over a year or so" for Iran to make a nuclear bomb.

The president reaffirmed his administration's pursuit of a peaceful resolution, saying talks reopened last month between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany could still curb the Islamic republic's disputed nuclear program.

"There's a window -- not an infinite period of time -- but a window of time where we can resolve this diplomatically, and that it is in all of our interests," Obama said.

To reassure the Israeli public, he reiterated that military options would be on the table should sanctions and diplomacy fail to stop Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon.

He also called on Israel to face up to a changing landscape in the region by appealing to the Arab public opinion.

"I think the Israelis will come around and move towards the American position on Iran because it's not very easy so far to strike the Iranian nuclear program," al-Ahmed said.

As to the Syrian conflict, which has so far killed some 70,000 people, Obama is not expected to share any new ideas after his stops in Israel and Jordan, a country that houses tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

The Obama administration has ruled out arming the rebels for now, fearful of their falling into "the wrong hands," as Islamist militants are among those fighting the government troops.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced in late February, for the first time, direct aid to the rebels in addition to boosted aid to the political wing of the Syrian opposition.

Seeking to leave a legacy, Obama is devoting his second term, at least in the first two years of his second and last term as president, to pressing domestic issues like growth and job creation, immigration reform and gun control.

But the Middle East is a region he cannot afford to ignore, as the United States has significant national and strategic interests there.

"It is time to restore a leading US role in the region that will continue to be the greatest source of dangers to the United States and its allies over the next generation," argued Michele Dunne and Barry Pavel, experts with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

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