Campaign-2012-Obama-Netanyahu-20120302President Obama is being criticized on both sides of the Atlantic by those who say his upcoming trip to Israel and other parts of the Middle East is not ambitious enough, with a lot of sight-seeing and no effort to strike some kind of peace agreement in the troubled region.

Obama has had a testy relationship with Israel and its newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for years, particularly after Netanyahu worked so hard last year to push for the election of his friend, Republican Mitt Romney. The White House is defending the trip, saying the president must begin conversations in the region before any major deals can be struck.

“We have been very clear this visit is not about trying to lay down a new initiative or complete our work on a particular issue,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, during a press briefing yesterday.

The last time the White House tried peace negotiations, in 2010, they went nowhere because Israel insisted on continuing to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank, a move considered illegal by the rest of the international community.

“With a new government you do not expect again to close the deal on any one major initiative, but on the other hand you want to begin a broad conversation about all these issues on which we are cooperating on a day-to-day basis,” Rhodes said. “Obviously there are going to be significant decisions in the months and years ahead about Iran, about Syria, about Israel-Palestinian peace and by having this opportunity to speak to Israeli leaders, it can frame the decisions that will ultimately come down the line.”

On his three-day trip that begins next Wednesday, his first overseas trip since his re-election, Obama will visit the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israeli museum, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the abandoned desert city of Petra in Jordan.
He will hold talks with Netanyahu, the head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, and King Abdullah of Jordan. He will also give a speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem — turning down an offer to address to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Critics in Washington called it a pointless “maintenance trip,” more suited to a tourist than the most powerful man in the world.

Haim Malka, author of “Crossroads: The Future of the US-Israel Strategic Partnership” and who is based in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the trip was “about managing the Middle East problems, not about solving those problems.”

“I don’t think the president by design is going to make the Middle East the centerpiece of his second term, and yet the Middle East will still affect the president and the second term agenda in surprising ways,” Malka said.

In a colorful analogy, Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian foreign minister and the country’s first ambassador to Israel, said trying to negotiate a peace agreement while Israel continues to expand into Palestinian territory is “like two people arguing over a slice of pizza while one of them is eating it.”

One visit that will receive a lot of attention is Obama’s meeting with the newly crowned Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw, the first black Israeli to the hold the title. The White House staff personally invited her to a dinner at the home of President Shimon Peres next Thursday — an acknowledgement of the country’s 120,000 Ethiopian Jews, a community that has long faced discrimination in Israel.

Aynaw, who was crowned last month and will represent Israel at this year’s Miss Earth pageant, has been a darling of the Israeli press with the story of her amazing rise.

“Ten years ago I was walking around barefoot in Ethiopia,” she told Israeli news site Ynet News yesterday. “I never imagined that one day I would be in the land of Israel, meeting the Israeli president and the president of the United States. I could never have imagined such a powerful and exciting situation.”

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