President Barack Obama will visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this spring, moves that could jumpstart the stalled Mideast peace process -- and perhaps improve relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The White House on Tuesday was forced to confirm Obama's trip -- reluctantly speaking only of a spring visit after it was first reported on Israel's Channel 10 news that Obama would arrive on March 20.
This will be Obama's first trip to Israel as president -- and comes after he overwhelmingly won the Jewish vote in November even after being slammed by some for not traveling to Israel in his first term (feeding into ungrounded accusations by Mitt Romney, a longtime Netanyahu friend, that Obama did not stand with Israel).
As Mayor Rahm Emanuel put it at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., last December, Netanyahu "bet" on the U.S. election and "lost."
That Obama is heading to Israel on what may be the first international trip of his second term is no surprise. During the campaign, Obama's team dealing with Jewish voter outreach said the president would visit if re-elected. New Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to land in Israel this month.
The Obama timing is interesting because it also could have an impact on Israel's domestic politics. Netanyahu came out of Israeli elections on Jan. 22 poised to remain prime minister, but with a much-weakened hand. Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a governing coalition and Obama's visit may complicate negotiations between Netanyahu and his new rival, Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party -- to Netanyahu's favor.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama and Netanyahu discussed the upcoming trip on Jan. 28.
"The start of the president's second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria," Carney said.
The swing, Carney said, will also include the West Bank and Jordan.
Obama visited Jordan, Israel and the West Bank during the 2008 election campaign. One of the enduring images of that trip was Obama donning a white yarmulke to pay his respects to Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem and to pray at the Western Wall.
Obama also traveled to Israel in 2005 -- in his first year as an Illinois senator -- in a trip arranged in part by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Israelis have their issues with Obama.
Obama's June 4, 2009, "message to the Muslim world" speech in Cairo helped create the testy relationship with Netanyahu when he said the U.S. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" and called for settlement construction to stop.
What's important here for Mideast negotiations: Obama will have a chance in Israel to win support of skeptical Israelis and show he can be an honest broker. And Lapid's party is seen as more centrist -- possibly moderating Netanyahu's hawkish views when it comes to dealing with the Palestinian Authority.