Obama is set to visit Israel and Bibi is talking peace

Israel trip plan suggests Obama ready to fire up peace talks

By Anshel Pfeffer, February 7, 2013
Likud’s post-election softening over the peace process appears to have encouraged Obama to return to Israel (Photo: AP)

Likud’s post-election softening over the peace process appears to have encouraged Obama to return to Israel (Photo: AP)

The announcement on Tuesday that US President Barack Obama will visit Israel next month has added to the speculation that the peace process could be restarted in the wake of the Israeli elections.

In his speech this week at the swearing-in of the new Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasised Israel’s interest in peace.

He did not, however, specifically mention the Palestinians and sources close to him have begun floating the idea of appointing Tzipi Livni as minister in charge of the peace process.

Mr Obama did not visit Israel during his first term in office but promised to arrive in his second term. The timing of the visit, however, due to take place so soon after the formation of a new government in Israel, has surprised many.

Until now, the feeling both in Jerusalem and Washington has been that the president is today less eager to try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than he was four years ago and that he is waiting for some sign from the two sides before he puts his own personal credibility on the line once again. But some of the early statements and actions this week by new Secretary of State John Kerry and the announcement of the presidential trip — he will visit also Ramallah and Jordan — seem to prove the opposite: that the administration still believes it can bring the sides a little closer together.

Election results appear to have changed Likud’s tune on the peace process

On Tuesday in his speech at the inaugural session of the 19th Knesset, Mr Netanyahu said: “While we are committed to improving the quality of life, we must also ensure life itself and ensure our future and security while facing new threats accumulating around us. And while we face these threats we must seek and try for a secure peace, stable and sober, with our neighbours.”

These words came after an election campaign in which there was little talk from the prime minister or anyone in his party about renewing the diplomatic process. Some observers have linked Mr Obama’s visit to the coalition talks taking place between Likud and the centre-left camp, which is demanding a commitment from the new government to re-launch “meaningful” talks with the Palestinians.

This week, senior Likud sources said that Ms Livni could be appointed as minister with special responsibility for the diplomatic process. During the elections, Likud ministers had said that Ms Livni would not be allowed near the diplomatic process in the next government, but the election results have changed the tune emanating from the top echelons of his party. Mr Obama will certainly be eager to take advantage of this window of opportunity.

Last updated: 3:46pm, February 7 2013