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President Obama's first test on Middle East peace

A much anticipated meeting with Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu takes place Monday at the White House. Will the president try to push for a quick solution or take a gradual approach?

May 18, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — Middle Eastern leaders have listened to President Obama say that he intends to achieve the peace deal that has eluded so many of his predecessors. Now they're about to find out just how hard he'll push to get it.

Obama today holds his first White House meeting with Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative who has pointedly stopped short of accepting the idea of a Palestinian state, which is the goal of the president and most other world leaders. Whether Netanyahu clings to that position will have a major bearing on the tenor of the visit.

There long have been predictions that the first Oval Office meeting between the two leaders would result in a noisy collision, as happened in 1996 when Netanyahu, in his previous term as prime minister, met with President Clinton.

But officials of both countries say that will not happen this time, in part because Netanyahu knows that Israelis want him to get along with the leaders of their nation's allies and protectors.

Yet the Israeli leader no doubt will probe to see how much effort and political capital the busy president is willing to expend on an effort that has so often proved fruitless. Leaders of many Arab and European countries, who want Obama to pressure Israel toward concessions, are watching with some anxiety.

"The question is, what will he do when he meets resistance?" wondered an Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The diplomat said that on several international issues, such as the suspected terrorist detainees and the U.S. desire for a European economic stimulus, Obama has proved to be a compromiser, and some Arabs are fearful about what he'll be willing to concede.

Obama's advisors are divided on whether he should press hard at a time when a deal appears so difficult.

His national security advisor, retired Gen. James L. Jones Jr., among others, appears to advocate that the administration lay out its positions and push for them as a means of reaching a final peace deal. Some aides, however, fear that high ambitions could lead to a demoralizing collapse, and believe the process should move gradually.

Obama's instincts are to go "high and fast," said Martin Indyk, a longtime U.S. negotiator in the Middle East who was a presidential campaign advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Indyk said some advisors want a gradual approach to avoid the appearance of failure.

By all accounts, the Obama team is not close to presenting a full set of goals for the negotiations. But behind the scenes, it is trying to orchestrate a complex diplomacy that will involve step-by-step compromises by both Israel and moderate Arab states toward a final settlement.

As a first step, U.S. officials have been pushing Israel to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank in return for a partial normalization of relations from the Arab states. Under this scenario, moderate Arab states would take steps such as exchanging diplomats and allowing commercial flights with Israel.

Netanyahu has signaled that he wants Arab states involved in the peace effort. But winning a commitment from his government to halt settlement expansion would be "tricky," said Indyk, especially if it would bar so-called natural growth of existing settlements in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

Many Israelis believe that growth is not worth the trouble it causes for Israel internationally. But settlement supporters are powerful enough to punish any Israeli government that moves to halt them.

Netanyahu has been carefully laying the groundwork for the White House meeting, at first sounding as if he would strongly resist the U.S. peace push, but gradually appearing more amenable.

He is expected to use the words "peace" and "negotiations" and outline his proposal to build the economy and institutions in the West Bank, especially the security forces that might help suppress attacks. But many will closely watch to see whether he uses the phrase "two-state solution."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Saturday that he believed Netanyahu would acknowledge that "at the end of the process, the objective is two peoples living side by side in peace and security."

The two-state outcome is opposed by many of the conservative Israelis whose support is crucial to maintaining Netanyahu's political coalition.

Netanyahu's primary focus in the meeting will be Iran. His aides say he will argue that the U.S. needs to help Israel eliminate the threat posed by an already hostile nation allegedly seeking to build nuclear weapons. Otherwise, Netanyahu has said, a Palestinian state would provide territory that could expand the danger posed by Tehran and allied militant groups.

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