Barack Obama hopes landmark visit to Israel can restart stalled peace process

President announces trip as secret talks between Palestinians and the Israelis can be revealed

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The Independent Online

Barack Obama will visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories next month, giving hope of fresh impetus to the moribund peace process.

Meanwhile, The Independent has learnt from Palestinian sources that weekly meetings have been taking place between the top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Molcho, suggesting that at least some progress is being made on efforts to reconcile the two parties.

Officially, Palestinian Authority officials have refused to meet Israeli negotiators while Jewish settlements are being built in the West Bank. In December, the Israeli government announced plans to build more settlements in reaction to the Palestinians gaining statehood recognition at the United Nations.

It has been assumed that the two sides were as far apart as ever, and there have been no face-to-face meetings between the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, since late 2010.

Some analysts believe that Mr Obama wants to leave his mark on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, with no election to win in 2016, he is prepared to upset various lobby groups in the United States in order to move the process forward. It is unlikely that the President would be willing to make the effort to visit the region without something tangible to show for his efforts.

Security teams are already in Israel and the West Bank preparing for the visit, Israel's Channel 10 news reported. The visit would be Mr Obama's first to Israel as US President after visiting as a candidate in 2008.

There has been considerable personal tension between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, with both accusing the other of interfering in both countries' recent elections. The US, along with other countries, has openly criticised Mr Netanyahu's administration for continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, which under international law is considered occupied territory.

Mr Netanyahu said that world leaders should declare Hezbollah a "terrorist entity" hours after the Lebanese group was blamed for a bombing in the Burgas Black Sea town last July. "I believe that what is required right now… is to call it like it is," Mr Netanyahu said.

Not long after winning the White House in 2008, Mr Obama brokered a moratorium in West Bank settlement building, seen by the Palestinians then and now as a prerequisite to any face-to-face negotiations. Mr Netanyahu lifted the freeze in late 2010 when little progress was made in talks with the Palestinians. The US is pushing for renewed talks "without preconditions", Channel 10 reported, which is broadly in line with Mr Netanyahu's position.

It was thought that Mr Netanyahu would visit Washington next month, to meet Mr Obama and attend the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group Aipac. However, the negotiations he is heading to form Israel's next coalition government are likely to last beyond the start of the conference.

Despite the personal animosity between the two men, there is fresh incentive on both sides to kick-start the peace process.