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Obama meets Arab American leaders ahead of Middle East trip

U.S. President Barack Obama announces new cabinet members in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Re
U.S. President Barack Obama announces new cabinet members in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Re

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Monday met Arab American leaders who urged him to deliver a message of hope to the Palestinian people on his Middle East trip this month, even though he has made clear he will not use the visit to launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.

Obama hosted about 10 leaders at the White House just four days after holding talks with representatives of major Jewish organizations in preparation for his travels to Israel, the occupied West Bank and neighboring Jordan.

The White House has yet to officially announce the dates for the trip, but Israeli news media have reported that Obama will start in Israel on March 20.

Obama met the group on Monday to seek input for his meetings in the region. He is expected to hold separate talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.

"He underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to demonstrate the United States' commitment to the Palestinian people - in the West Bank and Gaza - and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority as it continues building institutions that will be necessary to bring about a truly independent Palestinian state," a White House official said.

Obama also told them he would "reiterate America's commitment to Israel's security," the official said.

Many Palestinians have been disappointed by Obama's failure to do more to advance a peace deal, despite having declared Middle East diplomacy a high priority when he took office.

The Obama administration has opposed recent Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations while at the same criticizing Israeli settlement expansion on occupied land.

Obama told Jewish leaders on Thursday he would not be carrying a new peace plan when the arrives in the region, though he did not rule out a diplomatic push at a later date. The West's nuclear standoff with Iran and the civil war in Syria are expected to top his agenda.

"We are pleased to have shared with President Obama our recommendations and vital messages that he should convey to the Palestinian people," Arab American groups said in a joint statement. "The United States, through sustained, balanced, constructive engagement, can facilitate a peaceful, lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a resolution that is essential to long-term security in the Middle East."

The statement was from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, American Task Force for Palestine, American Federation of Ramallah Palestine and Arab American Institute.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Paul Simao)

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