RAMALLAH: Palestinian officials said on 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 US 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 the Arab 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 US 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 US 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 occupied Jerusalem.
Abbas and his aides argue that negotiations can only resume if the US 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 US 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 US presidents have raised high expectations for US-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.
US 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.