Obama to visit Israel in spring in possible Mid-East peace push

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Barack Obama plans to visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this spring, the White House said on Tuesday, raising the prospects of a new United States push to restart long-stalled Israel-Palestinian peace efforts.

Mr Obama's trip, his first to Israel since taking office, signalled that he intends to make the volatile Middle East - where Iran remains locked in a nuclear standoff with the West and Syria is caught up in a bloody civil war - a top priority in his second term.

While the White House gave no exact dates for the trip, Israel's Channel 10 television station cited unnamed sources in Washington saying Mr Obama would visit the Jewish state on March 20.

The choice of Israel for Mr Obama's first foreign travel since his Jan 21 inauguration will give the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a chance to repair their notoriously fractious relationship and seek common ground on confronting the region's troubles.

Mr Netanyahu is now occupied with the task of forging a new governing coalition after centre-left challengers made surprising gains in last month's elections, something that Mr Obama's aides believe could strengthen his hand with the hawkish prime minister.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu discussed the president's coming trip in a Jan 28 telephone call, the White House and the Israeli prime minister's office said.

"The start of the President's second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the US and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria," the White House said.

Mr Netanyahu's office said only that the leaders had discussed a visit timed for after the formation of a new Israeli government.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr Obama would also visit the West Bank to meet Palestinian leaders and travel to Jordan, considered a linchpin in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, to "discuss bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest".

New peace push?

Mr Obama's itinerary suggests that his administration may be preparing a new Middle East peace push. Word of the coming trip followed calls by incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry to Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday stressing the US commitment to peacemaking.

Mr Obama's early efforts to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fell apart amid mutual acrimony in 2010, followed by accelerated Israeli housing construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem - land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Mr Obama was reluctant to pressure Mr Netanyahu during the 2012 US election campaign for fear of undercutting support among Jewish voters and other pro-Israel constituencies. Now that he no longer faces re-election constraints, he may be ready to take a tougher tack despite the likelihood of drawing fire from Republicans who have questioned his commitment to Israel.

Israel's Channel 10 said Mr Obama's visit would focus on restarting peace talks with the Palestinians, but White House officials would not confirm that.

Also expected to be high on the agenda would be Mr Obama's efforts to convince Mr Netanyahu to hold off on any attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

Mr Obama's tensions with Mr Netanyahu have been aggravated by Mr Netanyahu's demands for US "red lines" on Iran's nuclear programme.

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