March 15, 2013
President Obama’s first overseas trip of his second term will take him to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan for discussions with Israel’s new government as well as to talk about Middle East peace efforts, Jordanian political reforms and the humanitarian crisis in Syria.White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters March 14 that this will be Obama’s first trip to Israel as president, following his last visit to the country in 2008, when he was a U.S. senator.Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced March 15 that he had formed a coalition government, and the new government is expected to be sworn in March 18, before Obama’s arrival on March 20.“With a new Israeli government coming into place and a new U.S. term here, this is an important opportunity for the president to consult with the Israeli government,” Rhodes said.
The president plans to have a “a broad strategic conversation” with Israeli leaders about Iran’s nuclear program, the violence in Syria and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and “by having this opportunity to speak with Israeli leaders, it can frame those decisions that ultimately will come down the line. And that’s the way in which the president is approaching the trip,” Rhodes said.
Speaking at the same briefing as Rhodes, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said the United States maintains a strong and “unbreakable” commitment to Israel’s security.
“At a time of a lot of uncertainty and change in the region, there’s great importance to our leaders getting together and engaging in some very intensive consultations on the critical issues that are really in their neck of the woods,” he said.
Rhodes said that, along with meetings with Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres, Obama plans to deliver a message to the Israeli people, including Israeli youth, “to tell them directly about what guides his approach” to the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
“The president’s speech, I think, will focus on the nature of the ties between the United States and Israel, the broad agenda that we work on together on security, on peace, on economic prosperity. And I think he’ll have a chance to speak to the future of that relationship,” Rhodes said.
Along with Israeli leaders, President Obama will be meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salim Fayyad in Ramallah. Rhodes said the trip provides an opportunity for Obama to hear from the leaders of both sides “about what they see as the next steps” for advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
“Part of the reason to move forward in the pursuit of peace is to signal to the people of the region a seriousness and a common sense of purpose so that the issue does not just continue to be a divisive one in the region, but rather people can have a sense of hope in Israel and in the Arab world that peace is possible,” Rhodes said.
Obama will also discuss continued U.S. support for the PA.
“We’re very supportive of efforts, for instance, on the West Bank to develop Palestinian institutions and broaden opportunity for the Palestinian people, even as we continue to work for advancements in the peace process,” he said.
President Obama will also be visiting Bethlehem, where he will see the Church of the Nativity, the traditionally recognized birthplace of Jesus Christ. Rhodes said the president’s visit highlights the difficult challenges currently being faced by Christian communities in the West Bank, Syria, Egypt and Iraq.
“Recognizing the very deep and ancient Christian communities in that part of the world, I think, is an important thing to do, because in these transitions, we’ve underscored the need to protect the rights of minorities and we’ve underscored the need for pluralism,” he said.
The president’s final stop will be in Jordan, where he will meet with King Abdullah for talks on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and U.S. assistance to help Jordan cope with Syrian refugees, and to express support for Jordan’s ongoing political and economic reforms.
King Abdullah and the Jordanian people are “very sincere and committed” to a reform agenda that will open up Jordan’s political process, reduce corruption and improve economic opportunities, Rhodes said.
“The president wants to reinforce the need to make continued progress in that regard — because, ultimately, reform is the path to lasting stability in terms of a government that is a partner of the United States and responsive to the Jordanian people,” he said.