President Barack Obama will face one of his toughest diplomatic tests so far on Monday when he seeks to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, to pledge to work towards a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The meeting, which has generated nervousness among Mr Netanyahu’s supporters in Washington’s influential pro-Likud lobby community, will be the most high-profile moment so far in the new president’s quest for a Middle East settlement.
Supporters of Mr Netanyahu argue that Mr Obama should first tackle Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme and only then embark on a peace process. “A lot of people want to hear the words ‘two-state solution’, but then a lot of people want to win the lottery as well,” says Jennifer Mizrahi, head of The Israeli Project, an advocacy group.
However, few predict that the normally pugnacious Israeli prime minister will risk alienating the highly popular US president on their first official meeting. White House officials have assiduously played down expectations. The two leaders met once before when Mr Obama stopped off in Israel during his presidential campaign last July.
“Short of the two men coming out of the White House bearing physical scars on their faces, the meeting will be adjudged a success,” says Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister, now at the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank. “Netanyahu will probably find a form of words to satisfy the two-state pledge. The real question is what action will follow.”
Mr Obama goes into the meeting in a strong position. In spite of having been demonised in anonymous e-mails as a terrorist sympathiser during the election campaign, Mr Obama managed to win more than three-quarters of the Jewish vote.
Unlike any of his recent predecessors, Mr Obama launched into a new peace initiative from the moment he took office, appointing George Mitchell, the former senator, as his special envoy for the region. Mr Mitchell, who served in the same role during the Clinton administration, has already paid three visits to the Middle East. Though Israel has supported his appointment, officials remember he was the author of a 2001 report that called for a complete freeze on settlement expansion.
Mr Obama has also broken precedent by saying that a two-state settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians would also be in the US national interest. In addition, the US president has taken many opportunities to say that achieving a settlement is a very high priority in spite of all the other crises taking place around him.
“If you had asked me on January 19 [the day before Mr Obama’s inauguration] whether we would be sitting down 110 days later talking about a Middle East peace process, I would have doubted it,” said a senior European official.
The sense of White House resolve has been reinforced by a tightly co-ordinated approach across the administration. Saying they were “not going to like my saying this”, vice-president Joe Biden last week told the powerful American-Israeli Political Action Committee that Israel must halt further settlements in Palestinian territories and dismantle existing outposts.
Last Sunday Jim Jones, Mr Obama’s national security adviser, told ABC News that there was an “expectation around the world that we are in a moment when we can make progress” in the Middle East. And on Monday, the US helped achieve a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution calling for “urgent action” to achieve a two-state settlement.
Yet Mr Obama has revealed little about his larger vision for the unfolding process. Following his meeting with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Obama will meet Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, and Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, in Washington the week after. He has already met King Abdullah of Jordan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
In June Mr Obama will travel to Cairo to give his much awaited speech to the Islamic world – a moment many in the US hope will begin to turn round the deeply negative view most Muslims have of the US. Before then, however, many are hoping Mr Obama will have spelt out how he intends to get a credible peace process under way.
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