Middle East

Low Bar Set For Obama's Mideast Trip

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Tuesday, President Obama leaves on a mission to the Middle East. It will be the first time he's visited Israel as president. NPR's Scott Horsley tells host Rachel Martin that the president will also meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and pay a visit to Jordan.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Happy St. Patrick's Day. President Obama will celebrate on Tuesday when he plays host to the Irish prime minister. That that will be the president's easiest foreign-policy assignment this week. Later that night, Obama leads on a more complicated mission to the Middle East. It will be the first time he's visited Israel as president. He'll also meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and pay a visit to Jordan. In a moment, we'll talk more about America's role in brokering peace in the Middle East.

But NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to preview the president's trip. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the White House seems to be trying to set a low bar when it comes to expectations for this visit.

HORSLEY: Well, if you don't expect much then it's harder to be disappointed.


HORSLEY: And this is the land where so many leaders have been disappointed over the years. In a sense, the president doesn't want to create another opportunity to miss an opportunity. So he's not bringing some bold, new Middle East peace plan with them. In fact, he's not even bringing a timid, new Middle East peace plan with them.


HORSLEY: The timing for that wouldn't really be right in any case. Israel has just barely seated its new government. So, instead this is a visit that will have a lot of symbolism and no one is really looking for a great deal of substance.

MARTIN: Even so, there seems to be considerable interest and excitement over this trip in Israel.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. I mean it's always a big deal when the president of the U.S. comes to visit. And there's been some consternation there that Obama didn't visit during his first term, especially after he made a very high-profile trip to neighboring Egypt early on in his administration. So this visit, it's the first foreign trip of his second term, it's kind of a chance for a do-over. It's a fresh start with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with whom Obama has had a notably frosty relationship. And also a fresh start with Israeli the Israeli people.

In fact, the president's agenda here as much about wooing the Israeli public, as it is about any direct talks with government officials. The president will be giving a speech to the public. He'll have an audience that includes a lot of young Israeli college students. And he's going to make some symbolic cultural stops. He's going to visit the grave of a Zionist pioneer and witness the Dead Sea Scrolls.

All of that meant to underscore the U.S. commitment to Israel. And the administration's hope is that if the Israeli public has more confidence in that commitment, in Obama's own commitment, then eventually it might be able a little easier for the U.S. to nudge Israel into making some of the tough choices in the peace process.

MARTIN: But I imagine when it comes to the substance of talks that he will have, Iran will probably be a big issue.

HORSLEY: No doubt. In fact, that may be a more urgent topic of conversation then the Palestinian question. The U.S. has assured Israel it will do what's necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Israel, for its part, would like to keep Iran from even getting close to that point. So the two countries have a somewhat different trigger for action.

Obama wants the time to keep pursuing a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program. So he's going to try to reassure Israel that the U.S. takes its security very seriously. As one sign of that, he'll be visiting an anti-missile battery that Israel used to defend itself against rocket attacks - that Iron Dome System, as it's called, has been partly bankrolled by the U.S. government.

MARTIN: NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Rachel.

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