Obama visit to Israel raises prospect of revived peace talks
A key factor behind the trip is certainly the result of the Israeli election
The decision by US president Barack Obama to visit Israel next month as part of a Middle East trip came out of the blue and has raised expectations that Washington may be trying to breathe new life into the comatose Israeli-Palestinian peace track.
Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, said Obama wanted to host a summit between prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas during his visit.
A key factor behind the decision was undoubtedly the result of last month's Israeli election.
Although Netanyahu was elected for another term as prime minister, the widely forecast swing to the right did not happen. Centre-left parties, particularly Yesh Atid, which emerged as the second-largest party in the new Knesset, did surprisingly well and is likely to feature in the new coalition.
There was even speculation that the announcement of the Obama visit was timed to influence the coalition negotiations that got under way this week.
The logic is as follows: Obama would come only if he was guaranteed in advance that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians would resume, and therefore dovish parties should heed Netanyahu's call to join the government to counterbalance right-wing elements that oppose a two-state solution.
The prospect of the resumption of peace talks could provide dovish former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Movement, which won six seats, and centrist Kadima, which won two, the fig-leaf they are looking for to join Yesh Atid in a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Such a scenario would be welcomed by Netanyahu, who seeks a broad-based coalition, and by Washington, which is looking for an Israeli government willing to make the painful compromises any peace deal will entail.
It is also possible that new momentum in the diplomatic process may prompt Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to replace Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.
Another factor for optimism is the appointment of John Kerry as US secretary of state.
Kerry, who is expected to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority next weekend, has made it clear that he will put a lot of effort into getting Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table after four years of deadlock.
The incoming secretary of state called Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday stressing the US commitment to peacemaking.
Obama was criticised for failing to visit Israel on his first trip to the region in June 2009 when he delivered his "Cairo speech" to the Muslim world. During last year's election campaign aides promised he would visit Israel if re-elected. Obama's associates have said in recent days that he plans to play a "central role" in shaping US policy in the region. However, the obstacles are immense.
The lack of trust between the sides remains. The Palestinians still maintain that Israel must freeze all construction at West Bank settlements and in Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem before they will agree to talk.
Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state, although he stresses that this is not a precondition for negotiations.
Another problem is the frosty relations between Obama and Netanyahu, who is closer ideologically to the Republicans and is a close friend of defeated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Because of the lack of chemistry between the two leaders it is possible Obama may seek to speak to the Israeli public above Netanyahu's head, urging them to make compromises for peace and allaying security concerns inherent in a land-for-peace deal. An address to the Knesset parliament has already been mooted.
Another major obstacle to any diplomatic breakthrough is the significant opposition within Netanyahu's Likud Beiteinu list to the idea of a Palestinian state, as well as within the right-wing Jewish Home party, another likely coalition member.
Of course the Israeli-Palestinian track is only one of the subjects that will be on the agenda during the March visit.
US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said among the other "urgent" and "complex" issues under discussion would be efforts to prevent Iran achieving a nuclear weapon and to prevent Syrian chemical weapons falling into dangerous hands.