JERUSALEM — Officials in Israel and the Palestinian territories Wednesday hailed U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to the region, noting it will be the first trip abroad of his second term and his first visit as president.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, says the planned visit by President Obama, who stopped in Israel while campaigning for election in 2008, will show the intimate relationship between the United States and Israel.
"It will also be an opportunity to talk about the excellent cooperation that exists between our two countries, and of course to discuss some of the challenges that we face – first and foremost the threat posed by the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon," he said.
The White House did not announce a date for the visit, but Israeli media said it would be in late March, after Netanyahu is due to form his coalition government.
Israeli Vice-Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israeli radio that the trip would focus on two main issues.
"First to resume the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process and create regional support for it, and secondly to build a regional coalition against Iran and its partners," he said, referring to military cooperation between Iran, Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement. Israel says those adversaries have thousands of missiles aimed at its territory and must be contained.
Israel's air force last week reportedly attacked a convoy of Syrian missiles said to be heading toward the Lebanese border.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Obama's upcoming visit. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of his Palestine Liberation Organization, said she hopes the visit will bring a new U.S. approach and end the stalemate over the Middle East peace talks.
"We hope that it does signal a seriousness of intent in terms of re-engaging in a positive and constructive way... in order to end this Israeli occupation and also to end Israeli impunity and unilateral measures, and to prepare the ground effectively for a just peace," she said.
Palestinian officials say they will resume negotiations only if Israel stops building Jewish settlements in the West Bank; Israel says talks should resume without preconditions.
A member of the Palestinian negotiating team and senior Abbas adviser, Mohammed Ishtayieh, told Palestinian radio that the Camp David peace talks of 1978 successfully brokered the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty because they were mediated personally by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
If a U.S. president does not involve himself directly in the peace effort, he said, it will fail.
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told local media that Obama will bring a complex but urgent agenda when he visits the region.