White House officials on Thursday downplayed expectations for any major breakthrough during President Obama's trip to Israel next week, setting the stage for a symbolic visit unlikely to produce Middle East peace initiatives or progress on curtailing a nuclear Iran.
Obama will head to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank on Wednesday, a trip which will include stops at the Church of the Nativity, an Iron Dome missile defense battery and a speech at a Jerusalem convention center aimed at young Israelis, according to a schedule announced by administration officials Thursday.
But for a president who in his first term said bringing peace to Israel and Palestine was a top priority, the language ahead of Obama's first presidential trip there was guarded.
"This visit is not about trying to lay out a new initiative," Obama spokesman Ben Rhodes said. "With a new government you don't expect to close the deal on a major initiative."
Such language is similar to that used by President George W. Bush, who trumpeted support for Israel but maintained a cautious approach after watching Bill Clinton's efforts to broker a deal between Israel and Palestine fall apart.
Obama and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have never been close, a relationship that got off to a rocky start when Israel ignored Obama's call to stop construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But the formation of a more centrist government in Israel could prompt Netanyahu to offer more concessions to Obama, analysts said.
Jonathan Adelman, a professor and Israeli specialist at the University of Denver, said Obama was aiming to "move the ball down the court" rather than achieve a major step forward. And Adelman predicted the meeting between the two leaders would ultimately focus more on Iran than Israeli-Palestinian relations.
"Bibi is trying to make nice with the president, even though the two just can't stand each other," Adelman said. "More than anything, Netanyahu wants America to agree to attack Iran or agree to tougher sanctions."
In exchange for a firmer commitment from Obama on Iran, Netanyahu could be open to restarting talks with the Palestinians. But such a prospect faces an uphill battle.
Rhodes said on Thursday that "Our red line is we will not allow Iran to gain nuclear weapons," repeating the language used by Obama.
Breaking with recent tradition, the White House said Obama would deliver his main speech from a convention center in Jerusalem, not the Israeli parliament, as both Bush and Clinton did before him.
The White House framed the decision as a continuation of Obama's 2009 "new beginning" speech in Cairo, where the president stoked hopes of a Middle East peace deal. The administration's credibility has since taken a hit in the wake of inaction.
Though critics accuse Obama of not showing a strong enough commitment to Israel, his supporters defended the lack of an ambitious agenda for the presidential trip.
"Expectations are low, and I think that's appropriate," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal Jewish group, adding that there could not be "concrete initiative, because the groundwork hasn't been laid."