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Obama visits Saudi Arabia, Cairo – why not Israel?

Many Israelis see the president's decision to bypass Jerusalem as part of a broader shift in US priorities in the region.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / June 3, 2009

President Barack Obama talks with Saudi King Abdullah at the start of their bilateral meeting at the King's Farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday.

Gerald Herbert/AP



On the eve of President Obama's historic visit to Cairo Thursday, where he will deliver a major speech that is expected to include his outlines for Middle East peace, many here are noticing signals of a shift in the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington.

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Obama, who was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and will speak in Egypt on Thursday, will not come to Israel as part of the trip. While there has been no official Israeli comment on this choice of itinerary, some observers see it as a symbol of how much has changed between Obama and the past few administrations, both under Republican George W. Bush and his predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton.

"What we sense is a shift here in his entire approach to the Middle East. But from the get-go he's been raising the status of America's relationship with the Muslim world, and there's a suggestion that this might translate into additional pressure on Israel," says Dr. Michael Widlanski, a research fellow at the right-leaning Shalem Center in Jerusalem. "This is perceived as a sign to the Arab and Muslim community that the US administration is more interested in their feelings than before, and Obama is clearly trying to redress the situation where he felt the Bush administration has alienated part of the Islamic world."

Heightened US-Israeli tensions over settlements

All of this comes against the backdrop of a growing flap over Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. Over the past week, Obama's administration has repeatedly made clear that it wants Israel to enforce a full halt in settlement growth, including a stop to what successive Israeli governments have described as "natural growth" as families expand and adult children marry and settle down near their parents. The 2003 road map for peace, which Israel agreed to, called for a freeze on settlement growth, which Palestinians see as undermining the feasibility of the future state they hope to establish.

Israel's new rightist prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has shown reluctance to agree to any kind of settlement freeze and is under pressure from settlers and other right-wingers to refuse such a move.

Israel removed a major West Bank roadblock Wednesday and has begun, in the past week, to dismantle small settlement outposts – tiny satellites of existing settlements that are largely seen as an attempt to annex more land to existing settlements and thereby prevent land from being turned over to the Palestinian Authority in negotiations. These moves were apparently intended as gestures toward peace on behalf of Netanyahu's government ahead of Obama's Cairo address.

Israelis skeptical of Obama's overtures to Arab world