Obama will get a firsthand glimpse of settlements when he heads to the Palestinian city of Ramallah on Thursday. The 20-minute drive from Jerusalem passes by sprawling settlements that are home to tens of thousands of Israelis.
Obama is scheduled to meet with Palestinian leaders and visit a youth center. He plans to head to the West Bank town of Bethlehem the next day to see the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christian tradition says Jesus was born.
Netanyahu, who was re-elected in January, has said he will make a renewed push for peace in his new term. His new government, which takes office this week, is sending mixed signals.
On one hand, he has named former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a political centrist who has good working relations with the Palestinians, as his chief negotiator. The biggest partner in his coalition, the centrist Yesh Atid Party, has demanded the new government make a serious attempt to restart talks.
At the same time, Netanyahu's own Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc is dominated by hard-liners who oppose major concessions to the Palestinians. Another partner, the Jewish Home Party, is linked to the settler movement and would reject any attempts to freeze construction, much less hand over West Bank territory to the Palestinians.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said getting talks back on track will require a deeper and long-standing effort by the president and his new secretary of state, John Kerry, who is expected back in the region in April.
"We really hope that President Obama and Secretary Kerry can succeed in reviving a meaningful peace process, succeed in having Netanyahu saying the sentence that he accepts the two states in the 1967 borders," Erekat said. "We don't need new plans. We need commitment."
The gaps between Israel and the Palestinians are just one of many obstacles. The Palestinians are also deeply divided between Abbas' government in the West Bank, which favors a negotiated agreement with Israel, and the rival Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, which rejects peace with Israel. Hamas has controlled Gaza since expelling Abbas' forces in 2007.
Yehia Moussa, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, told the pro-Hamas "Felesteen" newspaper the Obama visit was meant to "cool down" the Palestinians "by giving empty promises that will assist with continuing the (Israeli) occupation."
Hani Masri, a prominent Palestinian commentator in the West Bank, said the visit might lead to some movement.
"Most likely we are going to see some life in the negotiations," perhaps a limited settlement freeze that forces Abbas to resume talks. "But such a process won't lead to a peaceful settlement."