(Reuters) - Pope Benedict’s visit to the Holy Land precedes talks next week in Washington between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that could set the course for Middle East peace efforts.
Following are the latest facts on the Middle East conflict, on which the pope may comment during his visit:
The Obama administration is pushing for a two-state solution that is at the core of U.S. efforts for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was reaffirmed by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush when he sponsored talks that began at Annapolis in 2007 but made little progress. Netanyahu, heading a right-leaning coalition, has not publicly endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state. Since he took office six weeks ago, he has promised to pursue talks with the Palestinians on an economic, security and political track, but given no commitment to resume negotiations, begun under predecessor Ehud Olmert, on territorial issues. Palestinians say he must back their quest for a state before negotiations can resume. Netanyahu says any Palestinian entity must have limited powers of sovereignty and no army. Netanyahu and Obama are to meet in the White House on May 18.
Before his U.S. trip, Netanyahu will travel to Egypt on Monday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak, who has been trying to broker a reconciliation between Hamas Islamists and the Fatah group of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, leaving Abbas’s writ extending only to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
In a shift from Bush, Obama is actively seeking to engage Iran on a series of issues, from its nuclear program to Afghanistan. But his administration has made clear that any overtures to Iran will be accompanied by ramped up sanctions if there is no cooperation.
Israel, assumed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, has been cool to the idea of a U.S.-Iranian dialogue and has called for harsher sanctions against Iran. Israeli leaders have said a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to Israel’s very existence and that all options were on the table to stop Tehran from obtaining atomic arms.
The United States, which has renewed dialogue with Damascus, has told the Syrian government it was committed to seeking a peace deal between Syria and Israel. Indirect Israeli-Syrian talks mediated by Turkey were suspended after Israel’s three-week Gaza offensive, which ended in mid-January. Netanyahu has said the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in a 1967 war, are vital to Israel’s security and will remain in its hands.