Scant Hope of Breakthrough as Barack Obama's Mideast Trip Looms

Many Questions But Few Answers With Israel Awaiting Visit

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By Reuters

Published March 18, 2013.
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President Barack Obama is due to make his first official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, looking to improve ties after sometimes rocky relations with both sides during his first term in office.

Obama is not expected to come with any new Palestinian peace initiative and will spend most of his time in Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East, where he will make a keynote speech to hundreds of students.

The American president will hold separate talks with both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who finally formed a new coalition on Friday after a January election that weakened his grip on government.

Here are some of the issues that are likely to dominate the March 20-22 visit.

IRAN AND THE BOMB

Israel and the United States agree that Iran should never get a nuclear bomb, dismissing Tehran’s repeated assertion that its atomic programme is peaceful. However, the two allies are at odds over how fast the clock is ticking down on the need for preventative military action should diplomacy fail.

Netanyahu last year set a “red line” for Iran’s nuclear programme, saying the Islamic Republic should not be allowed to obtain 240 kg (530 lb) of 20 percent enriched uranium. Israeli officials have warned this tipping point could be reached by the spring or summer of 2013, although experts believe Iran has since slowed its stockpiling of 20 percent fissile uranium to ward off the threat of attack.

Obama said on March 14 that Iran was still more than a year away from developing a nuclear weapon and repeated his assurance to Israel that military force remained a U.S. option.

Israeli officials, who see Iran’s nuclear advances as an existential threat, make no secret of the fact that they would prefer to see the U.S. military, with its greater firepower, tackle Iran’s far-flung atomic installations. Tehran is improving its defenses and Israel worries that sooner rather than later Israeli warplanes will not be able to destroy this infrastructure. This would mean its own military option would be off the table, leaving Israel utterly reliant on Washington.


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