WASHINGTON – President Obama plans to travel this spring to Israel for the first time since taking office, in a trip fraught with potential tension as he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu try to move past the friction of the last four years now that both have won re-election.
Mr. Obama agreed to the visit during a recent telephone call with Mr. Netanyahu, as he tries to refresh a relationship that has been rocky from the start of his presidency. By making Israel a destination on the first overseas trip of his new term, Mr. Obama is trying to affirm his support for the Jewish state despite deep doubts among its supporters.
"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 of course Iran and Syria," said Jay Carney, the White House spokesman.
Mr. Carney said Mr. Obama would also travel to Jordan and the West Bank to meet with Arab leaders to discuss "regional issues of mutual interest." The Israeli news media reported that the president will arrive on March 20, but the White House would not discuss dates.
Mr. Netanyahu's office said that a visit would be "an important opportunity to underscore the friendship and strong partnership cooperation between Israel and the United States."
Mr. Obama never traveled to Israel in his first term, a fact that became fodder on the campaign trail last year. A television commercial from a pro-Israel group called the Emergency Committee for Israel said that Mr. Obama had "traveled all over the Middle East but he hasn't found time to visit our ally and friend, Israel." In his own commercial, Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, criticized the president for not going to Israel.
Only four sitting presidents have visited Israel. Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter each visited once. Bill Clinton traveled there four times, and George W. Bush twice. Mr. Bush, often called one of the strongest friends Israel has had in the Oval Office, did not visit until 2008 as he was nearing the end of his presidency.
Mr. Obama also traveled to Israel in 2008 while a candidate, but his relationship with Mr. Netanyahu has been strained at best. Mr. Obama's demand for a settlement construction freeze and Israel's decision to continue building new housing in the West Bank set the tone from the beginning. Mr. Netanyahu has also been more vocally hawkish about Iran's nuclear program. Mr. Obama, while not ruling out a military option, has sought to emphasize the potential for diplomacy to resolve the dispute.
Although neither said so explicitly in public, each man may have been secretly rooting for the other's opponents in recent elections in the United States and Israel, only to find that both incumbents prevailed and therefore presumably have to live with each other for years to come.
But while Mr. Obama overcame Mr. Romney in a clear victory last November, Mr. Netanyahu emerged from his own elections last month in a weakened state, with enough seats to retain office but forced to reach out to centrist lawmakers who may temper his policies in a governing coalition.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu spoke by telephone on Jan. 28 after the Israeli election, and it was on that call that the prime minister extended an invitation to visit and the president accepted, according to the White House. Mr. Netanyahu was formally tasked with forming a new government coalition on Saturday after 82 of the 120 members of the newly elected Parliament recommended him as the next prime minister. He has until March 16 to present his new government; coalition talks are under way.
Mr. Netanyahu was formally charged with forming a new government coalition on Saturday after 82 of the 120 members of the newly elected Parliament recommended him as the next prime minister. He has until March 16 to present his new government; coalition talks are under way.
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.