WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama will be listening for “serious commitments” from Israeli and Palestinian leaders on moving toward peace during his trip to the Middle East this week, the White House said Friday.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest explained that in the president’s meetings with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama would be “having conversations with them about what kind of serious commitments they’re willing to make to advance the peace process.”

Earnest said that only face-to-face negotiations would achieve a resolution to the conflict, and that the US government was “willing to continue to play a facilitating role” in those, but he stressed that it would be hard to get to direct talks that can make real progress if “unilateral actions” such as settlement activity and Palestinian appeals to the UN go on.

Earnest declined to comment on the new formulation of the Israeli government and how that would affect America’s view of Israeli policy and settlement building.

The White House on Thursday presented a detailed itinerary of Obama’s stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

The visit includes hours of meetings with Netanyahu, Abbas, President Shimon Peres, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and King Abdullah of Jordan. Obama will also make visits to Yad Vashem, the Israel Museum and Mount Herzl, where he will lay a wreath on the burial sites of slain premier Yitzhak Rabin and Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl.

At the museum, Obama will view the Dead Sea Scrolls, which US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes described as “a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel.”

In his first term, Obama visited Cairo and gave a much touted speech reaching out to the Arab world. Many Israelis, however, were critical of the link he seemed to make in that address between Israel’s founding and the Holocaust, while not providing any reference to Jews’ historic attachment to the Land of Israel.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the visit to Herzl’s grave both suggest an attempt to correct that omission and assuage Israeli concerns about Obama’s views on the country’s history and legitimacy.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, said the White House was still trying to change the negative narrative that the Cairo speech first implanted in the minds of Israelis, and that the unusual stop at the grave of the founder of modern political Zionism demonstrated that intention.

“I don’t recall... a [US] president laying a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl,” the seasoned diplomat noted.

The White House also confirmed on Thursday that Obama would be visiting both Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Bethlehem stop was intended in part to speak to the long heritage Christians have had in the region.

Rhodes spoke Thursday of the importance the place had for Christians in the Middle East and around the world, adding that it would be a “very powerful experience” for Obama, a devout Christian, to tour the Church of the Nativity and “observe firsthand that history.” He later brought up the “very difficult series of challenges” Christians in the region had faced, including in Egypt and Syria, during the Arab Spring.

“Recognizing the very deep and ancient Christian communities in that part of the world I think is an important thing to do,” Rhodes said, “because in these transitions, we’ve underscored the need to protect the rights of minorities and we’ve underscored the need for pluralism.

“The visit to the Church of the Nativity is intended to send that signal.”

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger