NPR Story
5:54 am
Wed March 20, 2013

Obama Begins Middle East Trip

Originally published on Sun March 24, 2013 8:20 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. President Obama is making his first visit to Israel since he's been in the White House. His past relations with Israel's government have not always gone well. Though the two nations insist they're reached new levels of security cooperation, they have publicly debated issues ranging from Iran to the Mideast peace process.

The president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have not had the warmest relations. But now, a newly re-elected president arrives in Tel Aviv. NPR's Larry Abramson is there. Hi, Larry.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does the president want to do?

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, he said that he does not want to bring any new peace proposals, that he doesn't have specific plans that he wants to discuss with the prime minister or with the Palestinian Authority, which he's also going to visit on Thursday. He said that this is a listening tour and that it's mostly to develop trust, I think. There is some mistrust - as you alluded to - between these two men, and also between these two countries. You know, the president skipped Israel in 2009, when he did the tour of the Middle East. He visited Cairo. He made a speech that was seen to be more accommodating to Arab and Muslim nations, and many Israelis still tell me that that hurt, or that stung.

INSKEEP: Well, how do Israelis anticipate this visit?

ABRAMSON: You know, a lot Israelis I talked to are incredibly excited. They have that Obama glow about them and think that he's really cool guy and that he might actually nudge their prime minister into doing something which the majority of Israelis want to see done, and that is sitting down and talking with the Palestinians. But there are many Israelis who do not want to sit down and talk with the Palestinians and I think that they are afraid that the president is going to force them into some sort of discussion that they don't think can happen right now because of the frame of mind of the Palestinians.

I think as far as Iran and Syria - which really are the two top topics that the two men are going to be talking about - there's broad agreement. I think that many people feel the president is going to try to reassure Benjamin Netanyahu that he is not bluffing, as it's been put, about military action if Iran does not back off of plans that may or may not be in place to build a nuclear weapon. But I don't think that that's seen here as a huge disagreement between the two nations; it's just something that they have to resolve a plan for.

INSKEEP: Well, you said this is more of a listening tour. Does that basically mean that both sides are beginning this visit with an anticipation that there's really not going to be any major announcement of any kind on any major issue?

ABRAMSON: Yes. I think people would very surprised if any big announcements were made. And I think that, again, it's building trust so that future announcements might be able to be made. It's interesting to note, Steve, that Secretary of State Kerry, who arrived here last night, is going to be coming back to Israel on Saturday to follow up on some of these meetings. So we'll have meetings between the president and the prime minister, then with President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and then follow-up meetings with the secretary of state that could indicate is there a basis for sitting down and talking again about the issue of the peace talks, which have been stalled for years.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask about that one thing, Larry. Do people talk a lot about peace with the Palestinians, the prospects for it, the need for it? Or is it really not a subject of conversation in Israel right now?

ABRAMSON: Well, it's kind of a dichotomy here. On the one hand, they talk about it constantly; everybody has it in front of their mind. There's, especially among the left, there's a strong feeling of sadness, I think, that the peace process has been stalled. On the other hand, we just had a general election - a parliamentary election - in January in which Israelis voted for parties that were focused on domestic issues and not so much on the peace talks. And the government that was voted in has a stated commitment of returning to peace talks, but not a very strong one. So there is that dichotomy. The peace talks are simply an issue that can't go away but think people frankly are - are jaded, and even those who like President Obama, a lot have rather low expectations.

INSKEEP: NPR's Larry Abramson is in Tel Aviv. Thanks very much, Larry.

ABRAMSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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