Critical visit: Obama's trip to the Middle East could be pivotal

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President Barack Obama's visit this week to Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and Jordan will be his first as president to those sensitive lands.

It comes at a time of considerable ferment in the region and the naming of a new Israeli government, as well as on the heels of Mr. Obama's own re-election to a second term as president.

Observers are already saying that the new coalition that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stitched together, more than seven weeks after parliamentary elections, is by its composition unlikely to return to constructive talks with the Palestinians on the two-state solution that was a goal of President George W. Bush and now Mr. Obama. There is as yet no reason to arrive at that gloomy conclusion, thus forestalling prospects for peace between those long-standing contending parties.

Any new governing player, whether it be in Israel, the United States or the Holy See, starts with the presumption of at least a partially clean slate in terms of goals and objectives, whatever origins or prior positions might suggest.

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the one party which has not yet dealt itself a new hand is the Palestinians. The term of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expired in 2009. The dominant party in the West Bank, Fatah, has not yet reconciled with Hamas, the dominant Palestinian party in Gaza, in spite of the Egyptians' best efforts. Palestinian elections have been discussed but not yet scheduled, leaving their side of the table in any talks unprepared to negotiate with authority.

Among those whom Mr. Obama will visit, there is controversy about the various stops he will make. He will visit, for example, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank, but not the Jewish Western Wall, the Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In Jordan, he will meet with King Abdullah, threatened by the winds of the Arab Spring and by that country's proximity to Syria, which is pouring refugees into Jordan. Jordan also serves as a base for American and other "non-lethal" military training and supply of Syrian rebels.

This is a critical trip, given the importance of the issues and the relationships, particularly at a time when in overall policy terms America is pivoting away from the Middle East toward Asia. It would be nice if Mr. Obama found the new Israeli government and the divided Palestinians ready to do business on a settlement before the United States walks away.

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