Washington - President Barack Obama told American Jewish leaders on Thursday that near-term prospects for Middle East peace may be bleak, but a deal with the Palestinians remains the only way for Israel to achieve long-term security.
Obama said he has no intention of delivering a “grand peace plan” when he travels to the Middle East later this month, downplaying expectations for a breakthrough on his highly anticipated visit to Israel and the West Bank. However, he said that doesn't preclude him from launching such an effort in the coming months, according to a source who attended the hour-long private White House meeting.
The White House has not publicly announced the dates for the president's trip, though Israeli news media have reported he will arrive on March 20. Obama will also make stops in Ramallah and Jordan.
In his meeting on Thursday, Obama acknowledged that he would be visiting Israel during a difficult political period for the US ally. Elections in January weakened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has since struggled to form a coalition government.
Netanyahu recently asked Israeli President Shimon Peres for a two-week extension to build the coalition, putting his new deadline just ahead of Obama's expected arrival in Israel.
The president said pursuing sweeping peace talks now would be premature, given that Israel is still working to form a new government. He also said he wanted to avoid the appearing as though he was favouring any one political party, according to the person in attendance, who was not authorised to discuss the gathering publicly and requested anonymity.
Obama 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. Netanyahu says talks should resume without any preconditions, and he has even 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 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.
National Jewish Democratic Council chairperson Marc Stanley was among those who attended Thursday's meeting. He said 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”.
In addition to his meetings with Netanyahu, Obama will also hold talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while in the region. He told the Jewish leaders Thursday that he would emphasise to Abbas that peace remains possible, though very difficult given the current climate in the region.
While in Israel, Obama is also expected to note that Israel's proximity in an increasingly dangerous region, given the instability in Syria and the potential nuclear threat from Iran. He'll likely reiterate that all options, including military force, remain on the table when it comes to dealing with Iran, while also touting the impact of strident economic sanctions. - Sapa-AP