The new Israeli government will use Barack Obama’s visit to Jerusalem this week as an opportunity “to show our gratitude to the American people”, said Binyamin Netanyahu before being sworn in for a third term as prime minister on Monday.
“Obama’s visit will be an opportunity to thank him,” Netanyahu said after warning that Israel faced “enormous threats” in the region and pledging to “guarantee the future of the Jewish people by guaranteeing the future of the state of Israel, the root of our existence”.
The government was sworn in almost eight weeks after the election on 22 January, and just two days before Obama is due to arrive in Israel for his first visit as president.
Complex negotiations over the composition of the coalition resulted in a government characterised as more centrist than its predecessor. However, it is still highly resistant to concessions to the Palestinians in order to reach a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict.
The defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said he opposed making any gestures to the Palestinians, such as a freeze on settlement construction or the release of prisoners, to encourage a return to talks. The conflict must be “managed” rather than brought to an end by the creation of a Palestinian state, he argued.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party and another key figure in the new government, has said there must never be a Palestinian state.
Avigdor Lieberman, who is expected to return as foreign minister if he is acquitted in his forthcoming fraud trial, reiterated his view that a peace deal was impossible and that anyone who believed otherwise was “delusional”.
Other key members of the government include former TV presenter Yair Lapid, the surprise star of January’s election, as finance minister, settlers’ champion Uri Ariel as housing minister, and Tzipi Livni, leader of the six-strong centrist Hatnua party, as justice minister.
The White House has been careful to set low expectations for Obama’s three-day visit, which starts on Wednesday, during which he will be accompanied by John Kerry, the new secretary of state.
Netanyahu and Obama at a meeting in the White House in 2010. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
In a briefing last week, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters: “We’ve been very clear that this visit is not about trying to lay down a new initiative or complete our work on a particular issue; that, frankly, there’s value in travelling precisely at a time when there is a new government in Israel and a new government in the United States and just having a broad strategic conversation.”
Approximately five hours of talks have been scheduled between Obama and Netanyahu, which are expected to be dominated by the Iranian nuclear programme, Syria and the region, Israeli-Turkish relations, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama is also visiting Ramallah in the West Bank to meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and prime minister Salaam Fayyad. Officials have reportedly added a second meeting with Netanyahu after Obama’s trip to Ramallah in what appears to be unusually high-level shuttle diplomacy.
Danny Ayalon, who was deputy foreign minister in the previous Israeli government, said Obama’s visit was “in a way a correction of some of the mistakes made four years ago when Obama came to the region but passed over Israel”. He was referring to Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009, in which the new president spoke of Palestinian suffering and pain, and said their situation was intolerable.
The key points of the visit will be a joint press conference between Obama and Netanyahu on Wednesday evening and a speech to be delivered by the president before an invited audience of Israeli university students on Thursday.
A visit to view the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum is being interpreted as a presidential acknowledgement of the ancient Jewish connection to the land, and the laying of a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, is also considered symbolically significant.