Last updated: 5 February, 2012

Israel prime minister to visit US in March

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to visit the United States at the beginning of March, his office said on Sunday.

The visit will come after several rounds of so-called exploratory talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and amid increased speculation over whether Israel is planning to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

His office said Netanyahu would deliver a speech at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby group that starts on March 3.

Israeli President Shimon Peres is to also attend the conference in Washington, according to AIPAC’s website.

Asked whether Netanyahu would be meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington, an Israeli official who requested anonymity told AFP that “it appeared that such a meeting is possible.”

The premier’s last visit to the United States was in late September, when he attended the UN General Assembly as the Palestinians presented a bid for full UN membership, which the Jewish state and Washington opposed.

Netanyahu met Obama on the sideline of the assembly.

Next month’s trip comes after the end of five rounds of talks held in Amman between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, sponsored by the peacemaking Middle East Quartet which includes the United States.

The talks ended without a deal to carry on or to return to direct negotiations but the Quartet, which also includes the United Nations, European Union and Russia, has urged both sides to continue meeting.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel builds settlements and they want a framework for negotiations with border negotiations based on the lines that preceded the 1967 Six-Day War.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon during a visit to the region last week called on Netanyahu to make “goodwill gestures” to bring the Palestinians back to direct negotiations, frozen since September 2010.

Netanyahu’s trip to the United States also comes at a time of heightened tension over Iran’s nuclear programme, which Israel and much of the international community fear masks a weapons drive.

Tehran denies the charges but has faced international sanctions and Israeli warnings that it retains the option of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.