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After repeated run-ins with Netanyahu during Obama’s first term in office, the mood between the two men appeared to be much warmer, angering Palestinians, who blame the 2010 collapse of U.S.-backed peace negotiations on the Israeli leader’s expansion of Jewish settlements on land where they want their state.
Obama is to address the decades-old conflict in talks with Abbas, a moderate whom Washington wants to shore up, and also in a keynote speech hours later to students in Jerusalem.
After the lofty ambitions of Obama’s first term, when he appointed a special envoy to the Middle East on his very first day in charge and said peacemaking was a priority, it was clear that the president has now set the bar significantly lower.
“I will consider this a success if, when I go back on Friday, I am able to say to myself I have a better understanding of what the constraints are,” he told a joint news conference on Wednesday, standing alongside Netanyahu.
The three-day visit is Obama’s first to Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank since entering the White House in 2009, and the inaugural foreign trip of a second and final four-year term that began in January.
Sporadic protests flared in the West Bank and Gaza Strip this week, with Palestinians accusing Obama of not doing enough to halt Israeli settlement-building on land seized in the 1967 Middle East war.
In 2009, Obama bluntly told Israel it had to halt settlement construction, but he later backed away from the demand and made no mention of the issue on Wednesday.
Posters depicting Obama were defaced in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem earlier this week and anti-U.S. sentiment bubbled up on social media.
“Do Not Enter,” said one poster put up on Facebook, showing Obama’s face with a red line crossed through it. “The people of Palestine do not welcome you here.”
In Israel, Obama has been drawing new praise for his firm commitment to the security of the Jewish state and his pledge not to let Iran develop nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu, while citing what he described as Israel’s right to defend itself, said that he was “absolutely convinced” that Obama was determined to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.
The Hebrew-language press gave largely positive reviews for Obama, who is distrusted in Israel following perceived missteps in his first term that were viewed as hostile.
“A bit of informality, a joke or a gentle tease, a few words in Hebrew, and we are immediately filled with great love for the man who looks for a moment as if he likes us,” a columnist wrote in top-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
But the paper added: “Obama is here for one reason, to build up a stock of positive attitude, of trust, for the developments that lie ahead. For if he intends to push Netanyahu into a peace initiative, this will not happen without trust.”
Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he hoped Obama’s visit would help “turn the page” in relations with the Palestinians.
“Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples. We stretch out our hand in friendship to the Palestinian people,” he added.