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U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.
The White House has deliberately minimised hopes of any major breakthroughs, a reversal from Obama’s first four years in office when aides said he would visit the Jewish state only if he had something concrete to accomplish.
With both Obama and Netanyahu just starting new terms and mindful that they will have to work together on volatile issues for years to come, they will be looking to avoid the kind of public confrontation that has marked past encounters.
The pair are due to hold a news conference at 8.10 p.m. (1810 GMT) after an initial round of talks.
Shortly after landing in Tel Aviv, Obama’s entourage flew by helicopter to nearby Jerusalem and then drove to his city centre hotel. Hundreds of banners boasting of “an unbreakable alliance” hung from lampposts, but only sparse crowds turned out to watch the president’s motorcade drive through shut-off streets.
Seeking to connect directly with an often sceptical Israeli public, Obama will make a speech to a group of carefully screened students on Thursday afternoon where he is expected to touch on major topics of concern, including Iran.
Israel and the United States agree that Iran should never get a nuclear bomb, dismissing Tehran’s 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.
U.S. officials say Obama, the fifth sitting U.S. president to travel to Israel, will urge further caution, with Washington worried that a threatened Israeli unilateral strike might drag the United States into another Middle East war.
Obama will fly by helicopter the short distance between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, avoiding having to cross the Israeli separation barrier that divides the two cities.
Abbas’s allies have expressed bitter disappointment over the lack of fresh U.S. moves. “It’s not a positive visit,” said Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Abbas.
Netanyahu told Obama at the airport that he was committed to securing peace with the Palestinians, but Western diplomats in Jerusalem remain largely sceptical.
The Israeli leader has just forged a coalition government containing fervent supporters of settlement building in the West Bank, which the U.S. has strongly criticised as a major impediment to lasting peace with the Palestinians.
Along the reception line, Obama stopped only briefly to shake hands with pro-settler leader Naftali Bennett, but had a long exchange with new Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who heads a centrist movement and has said peace-making is a priority.