RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian officials said Thursday they hope President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to the region signals readiness to re-engage in Mideast peace efforts, but that negotiations can only resume if Washington is ready to get tough with Israel.
The Palestinians have long been anxious for the U.S. to revive serious talks with Israel. Their expectations were dampened following a White House statement that Obama will not pursue any new peace initiatives on his visit, expected in late March.
Jibril Rajoub, a former Palestinian security chief and prominent West Bank official, told Israel's Army Radio that Washington is the only one that can "build a bridge of trust" between the two sides.
"If there is anyone who can press the Israelis to change their attitude, it's the American president," Rajoub, speaking Hebrew, said Thursday. "I see his visit as important. We all need it. I hope something will come of it."
Peace talks between the two sides collapsed in 2008. Palestinians refuse to negotiate until Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas they want for a future state.
Israel has refused to halt settlement construction in the two areas, which it captured in the 1967 Mideast war, saying there should be no preconditions for talks.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, Israel agreed to a temporary slowdown in building that helped Obama to restart talks in 2010. But those negotiations collapsed after several weeks when the Israeli moratorium expired.
The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state in all territories captured by Israel in 1967, a position widely backed by the international community. Netanyahu opposes a return to the 1967 lines.
Given the wide gaps between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, talks have remained at a standstill and the U.S. has remained largely on the sidelines.
The Palestinians believe they don't have enough common ground with Netanyahu for successful negotiations. They also fear the Israeli leader wants negotiations more to ease diplomatic pressure on Israel than to truly seek a deal. A final agreement would require difficult concessions, including a division of Jerusalem.
Israel, for its part, believes the Palestinians are to blame for refusing to return to the peace table without preconditions. Netanyahu has said peace talks cannot be fruitful if the Palestinians continue to refuse to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland.
Abbas and his aides argue that negotiations can only resume if the U.S. engages fully and if Obama is willing to spend political capital on pressuring Netanyahu. Wednesday's White House comments suggest that such involvement is unlikely in the near future.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Thursday that she hopes Obama's visit "signals an American promise to become an honest and impartial peace broker."
"The U.S. can play this positive role by engaging in an effective and constructive manner rather than by repeating the same policy of negotiations for their own sake," she said.
Previous visits to the region by U.S. presidents have raised high expectations for U.S.-brokered peace deals. The White House tried to lower those expectations this time, emphasizing that the president's focus will be to turn a new leaf with his Israeli counterpart, with whom he had frosty relations during his first administration.
U.S. officials said Obama will meet with Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders and will stress the importance of getting the parties back to the negotiating table, but that the administration does not see the immediate revival of the peace process as a realistic prospect.
"That is not the purpose of this visit," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. The White House has not announced a date for Obama's visit, but Israeli media reported he will arrive March 20 for a three-day visit.
Danny Ayalon, who recently stepped down as Israel's deputy foreign minister, said there may be more hope for bringing the sides to the negotiating table following Israel's recent election, in which Netanyahu won another term.
Netanyahu is building a new coalition now, and he has signaled that he seeks to include centrist parties that have demanded a resumption of peace efforts.
"The next government may have more wiggle room because of the coalition," Ayalon said.
Newly sworn-in Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and other countries in the region this month to prepare for Obama's trip. Kerry also spoke with Netanyahu and Abbas over the weekend to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the peace process.
Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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