Washington is tempering expectations ahead of the scheduled visit of U.S. President Barack Obama in March.
Obama will not be carrying any big new Middle East peace plans when he embarks on the trip, which will also include a stop in the Palestinian territories, officials say. But repairing the relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a key ally with whom Obama has often been at odds, could itself be a crucial step toward reopening a pathway to peace in the region.
With the visits likely to focus heavily on Iran's nuclear challenge and the civil war in Syria, White House spokesman Jay Carney played down speculation that new peace initiatives could also feature.
"This is a trip the president looks forward to making that is timed in part because we have here obviously a second term for the president, a new administration and a new government in Israel, and that's an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals," Carney told reporters at Wednesday's briefing.
"We expect that Iran and Syria will be topics of conversation, but I'm sure a variety of issues will be discussed, as they always are, when the president meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. And that is certainly the case when he meets with Palestinian Authority officials."
In his meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders, Obama will stress the importance of getting the parties back to the negotiating table. But U.S. officials cautioned that no breakthroughs were expected to emerge during the president's trip and reviving the peace process in the near term is not seen as realistic by the Obama administration.
"That is not the purpose of this visit," Carney said.
But even if Obama arrives without a new peace initiative, officials close to Netanyahu expect that an announcement of renewed talks with the Palestinians will be made either just before, or during, Obama's visit. It is unclear at this stage what the parameters of the resumption of the talks will be and if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will agree to drop preconditions. Israel is open to presenting the Palestinians with a "basket of gestures" ahead of Obama's visit to soften their stance toward renewed talks. One of the options being discussed is a trilateral meeting between Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas — but it is still too early to assess the chances of such a meeting taking place. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday at Secretary of State John Kerry's swearing-in ceremony that he hopes a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians would be signed by the end of Obama's second term in office.
Kerry is expected to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and other countries in the region this month to lay the groundwork for Obama's trip. Kerry also spoke with Netanyahu and Abbas over the weekend to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the peace process.
National Security Council chief Yaakov Amidror and Netanyahu's special envoy for the Palestinian peace process Yitzhak Molcho have been dispatched to Washington to prepare for the visit; Amidror for the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah security issues and Molcho for the Palestinian track.
Jibril Rajoub, speaking to Army Radio, said that Abbas is "the last Palestinian leader that the Israelis can make peace with."
Despite the deep ties between the U.S. and Israel, traveling to Jerusalem is always a tricky prospect for American presidents, given that their visits often raise expectations for U.S.-brokered peace deals. Only four U.S. presidents have visited Israel since the country was formed: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who visited twice in the final year of his presidency.
Seeking to temper expectations, the White House is emphasizing that the president's focus will be brokering a new beginning with his Israeli counterpart. Both men are freshly re-elected and stuck with each other for the foreseeable future, though each may have hoped for a new negotiating partner.
Both Washington and Jerusalem have made clear that the Iranian nuclear issue stands at the center of Obama's visit. The U.S. has recently renewed calls for direct U.S.-Iran talks to resolve the issue, a stance with which Jerusalem is unhappy. While Israel's stated position is that it is preferable to solve the Iranian issue through diplomatic means, and that the use of force is a last resort, Netanyahu does not believe in dialogue with the ayatollahs.
Netanyahu's request of the U.S. administration is a tightening of sanctions and presenting a clear ultimatum to the Iranians. Without agreement from the Americans on these two issues, Israeli officials say that it is possible to talk of a significant disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu. Either way, Israeli officials say that they expect heavy American pressure on Iran even before Obama arrives in the region, in coordination with the P5+1 powers who will sit down with Iran at the end of February in Kazakhstan.
Obama's stated preference for using economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, not military force, against Iran has raised suspicions in Israel about his level of support for the Jewish state. Part of Obama's mission during his trip will be to change that impression among the Israeli people, said Dennis Ross, who served as a Middle East adviser to Obama. Ross said connecting with the Israeli people could give Obama more space for dealing with Iran and would "signal that he's still interested in peace to those who think he's given up on it."
Meanwhile, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said he expected that Obama's spring visit to Israel — his first as president — would send "a powerful message to the Middle East."
"Listen, we're delighted that he's coming," Oren said on MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd."
"President Obama was always welcomed in Israel. He'll be received enthusiastically by the government of Israel, by the prime minister of Israel, by the people of Israel."
"The White House has made very clear that the purpose of the trip is to strengthen an already historic bond between Israel and the United States," he said. "I think it will send a powerful message to the Middle East at a time of great uncertainty and upheaval throughout the region, and I think that is the purpose of the trip."