Mahmoud Abbas

Geoff Dyer

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama at a previous meetingBody Language. The worst-kept secret in diplomacy is the bad blood between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When he was first elected, Netanyahu apparently felt Obama was trying to strong-arm him on settlements. It has been downhill since. There was the time when Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval office. Or the time when Obama told Nicolas Sarkozy: “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.” Or when Netanyahu appeared to endorse Mitt Romney (he was just being polite to an old friend, the Israelis say). Or when Obama was quoted calling Netanyahu a “political coward”. Given that this squabbling is bad politically for both leaders, expect them to behave like the best of chums this week. Watch for how many time Obama calls Netanyahu ‘Bibi’.

The Peace Process. The White House has done everything it can to play down expectations about the launch of any new initiative on this trip to such an extent that Obama is being accused of going merely as a “tourist”. But given how little the White House has said about what the US might do or how much importance it places in the peace process in Obama’s second term, any hints or suggestions will be pounced upon.

John Kerry. One of the signals on the peace process will be how Obama talks about his new secretary of state, who will be accompanying him on the trip. Some in Washington expect Obama to state publicly that he is tasking Kerry with picking up the reins of the peace process, which would give him much greater authority. Read more

James Blitz

Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will visit Israel on Wednesday 20 March. It will be the first foreign visit of his second term. The trip will be dominated by three foreign policy issues – Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian civil war and the Middle East peace process.

Those issues will do much to define how his presidency is eventually judged. This will not be an easy visit for Obama; his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, are notoriously frosty. “Obama has done a lot for Israel but many Israelis are still uncertain to what extent he is a true friend of their country,” says one veteran foreign diplomat. “If he wants to persuade Israelis to move on issues like the peace process he needs to convince them he is genuinely on their side.”

But this visit has to be more than just a charm offensive. Three questions will determine whether it is a success. Read more

Gideon Rachman

What does the vote upgrading Palestine’s status at the UN to “non-member state” with observer status actually mean? Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, was quick to rubbish the vote as essentially meaningless in her speech. She could be right. But it all hinges on whether the Palestinians will now be able to pursue the Israelis through the International Criminal Court in the Hague. If that happens, then this really is a big deal. If the ICC does not come into play, then today’s vote matters a lot less.

As far as I can gather the legal situation is very unclear – and different lawyers take different views on whether Palestine’s new status will allow it to use the ICC. Inevitably, politics will also come into play. It would be a bold and risky decision for a fledgling institution like the ICC to go after Israel, since that would immediately and possibly permanently sour relations with the US. Most of the European powers would also be opposed. The reason that Britain abstained on today’s vote, for example, was this hovering question of the ICC and the refusal of the Palestinians to give assurances that they would not head straight for the Hague. On the contrary, Mahmoud Abbas hinted heavily in his speech that he was considering doing exactly that. Read more

Roula Khalaf

In Israel and the Gaza Strip, there might be no real winners from the week-long conflict that ended last night. But there is already a clear loser, writes Roula Khalaf – he is Mahmoud Abbas and he is the president of the Palestinian Authority. Read more