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Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren speaks to reporters in Manhattan, Kan., on Jan. 29. / John Milburn, AP

WASHINGTON -- When President Obama makes his first official trip to Israel in three weeks, he should expect both a welcome and a warning.

The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, told USA TODAY's "Capital Download" there were no hard feelings about the failure of Obama to visit during his first term, though Republicans made his absence an issue during his re-election campaign last year. "We're delighted that he's coming now," Oren said, saying it was "a great honor" to be a destination during the first foreign trip of the president's second term.

"Keep in mind that President Bush didn't come until the last six months of his second term," the ambassador said. "President Reagan didn't come at all."

But in an interview at the Israeli Embassy, Oren also reiterated Israel's growing alarm over Iran's nuclear program. Differences over how to respond to that threat prompted an angry public dispute last fall between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over precisely when diplomacy and economic sanctions should give way to military action.

"I think there's time, but there's not much time" for sanctions to work, Oren said. "There's a window for diplomacy, but the window is closing." The United Nations is monitoring Iran's program to enrich uranium to near-weapons grade, he said, but Iran's progress on warheads and other components is outside international scrutiny.

"We know that given the centrifuges that they have now, they will pass a red line," he said. "That's the point where we will no longer be able to prevent them from making a nuclear weapon, and that line is coming up in the summer. If they install the next generation of centrifuges - and they're installing them right now - (and) if those centrifuges begin to spin, then the time will be even shorter."

Iran has begun to equip its uranium-enrichment facility with second-generation centrifuge machines, potentially accelerating the production of nuclear fuel.

International talks designed to curb Iran's nuclear program resumed Tuesday in Kazakhstan after an eight-month break. At a news conference Monday in London, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that "terrible consequences could follow failure" to reach an agreement. Iran denies its nuclear ambitions are military.

A nuclear-armed Iran could not only imperil Israel's existence but also provide the weapons to terrorists, posing a threat to the United States and elsewhere, Oren said. Washington and Jerusalem are engaged in what he called "a continuing and a very close, intimate dialogue" about how to proceed.

During his trip, Obama is slated to visit the West Bank and Jordan and to deliver a major speech in Jerusalem. The president isn't expected to unveil a proposal to revive stalemated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But during his Senate confirmation hearings, Kerry said he wanted to restart the talks, and he made his first official phone calls as secretary of State to Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

"I believe he has a very important role in trying to restart the peace talks," Oren said of Kerry. But the ambassador said Palestinians have been unwilling to return to direct talks without preconditions. "At the end of the day, I think he'll tell you also that the initiative has to come first from the actual parties themselves."

Oren, 57, who was born and reared in New Jersey, has served as Israel's ambassador to the United States since 2009. He is an historian and author of several books, including Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

He said the president's trip resonates with Israelis and the world.

"I think the trip is designed to send a very powerful message to the people of Israel that we're not alone in this turbulent time in Middle East history," he said. "It's also sending a message to the entire Middle East about the unbreakable nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance, and no one should have any illusions about that."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: For Obama, a welcome to Israel and a warning about Iran

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