Obama heads to Middle East with low expectations

WASHINGTON (AP) - When President Barack Obama steps into the Middle East's political cauldron this coming week, he won't be seeking any grand resolution for the region's vexing problems. His goal will be trying to keep the troubles, from Iran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon to the bitter discord between Israelis and Palestinians, from boiling over on his watch.

Mr Obama arrives in Jerusalem on Wednesday for his first trip to Israel as president. His first priority will be resetting his oft-troubled relationship with now-weakened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and evaluating the new coalition government Mr Netanyahu laboriously cobbled together.

The President also will look to boost his appeal to a sceptical Israeli public, as well as to frustrated Palestinians.

"This is not about accomplishing anything now. This is what I call a down payment trip," said Mr Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Mid-East peace to six secretaries of state who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre.

For much of Mr Obama's first term, White House officials saw little reason for him to go to the region without a realistic chance for a peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians. But with the President's one attempt at a US-brokered deal thwarted in his first term and the two sides even more at odds, the White House has shifted thinking.

Officials now see the lowered expectations as a chance to create space for frank conversations between Mr Obama and both sides about what it will take to get back to the negotiating table. The President will use his face-to-face meetings to "persuade both sides to refrain from taking provocative unilateral actions that could be self-defeating", said Mr Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

The trip gives Mr Obama the opportunity to meet Mr Netanyahu on his own turf, and that could help ease the tension that has at times defined their relationship. The leaders have tangled over Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, and Mr Netanyahu has questioned Mr Obama's commitment to containing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Mr Netanyahu also famously lectured the President in front of the media during a 2011 meeting at the White House, and later made no secret of his fondness for Republican challenger Mitt Romney in last year's presidential campaign.

Beyond Mid-East peace, the two leaders have similar regional goals, including ending the violence in Syria and containing the political tumult in Egypt, which has a decades-old peace treaty with Israel. The President's trip comes at a time of political change for Israel.

Mr Netanyahu's power was diminished in January elections, and he struggled to form a government. He finally reached a deal on Friday with rival parties, creating a coalition that brings the centrist Yesh Atid and pro-settler Jewish Home parties into the government and excludes the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties for the first time in a decade.

Mr Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, acknowledged that with a new government, "you don't expect to close the deal on any one major initiative". But he said starting those conversations now "can frame those decisions that ultimately will come down the line". Among those decisions will be the next steps in dealing with Iran's disputed nuclear programme.

Israel repeatedly has threatened to take military action should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a nuclear bomb. The US has pushed for more time to allow diplomacy and economic penalties to run their course, though Obama insists military action is an option.

The West says Iran's programme is aimed at developing weapons technology. Iran says its programme is for peaceful energy purposes.

Another central difference between the allies on Iran is the timeline for possible military action.

Mr Netanyahu, in a speech to the United Nations in September, said Iran was about six months away from being able to build a bomb. Mr Obama told an Israeli television station this past week that the US thinks it would take "over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon".

Mr Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US, tried to play down any division on the Iranian issue ahead of Mr Obama's trip. He said Friday that "the United States and Israel see many of the same facts about the Iranian nuclear program and draw many similar conclusions".

Mr Obama's visit to Israel may quiet critics in the US who interpreted his failure to travel there in his first term as a sign that he was less supportive of the Jewish state than his predecessors. Republican lawmakers levied that criticism frequently during last year's presidential campaign, despite the fact that Republican President George W. Bush did not visit Israel until his final year in office.

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