Signaling the start of a real push on Middle East diplomacy and on tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Barack Obama met with Binyamin Netanyahu today. The talks were "productive," the Israeli prime minister said, and the body language between the two men seemed warm. Even so, the meeting—Obama's first with Netanyahu since both men took power—underscored the leaders' disagreements on several major issues.
One focal point of today's talks was Iran's nuclear ambitions. The leaders agreed that a nuclear Iran would pose a serious threat to the international community. But they highlighted their different approaches to the issue. Netanyahu has been clear that he finds the notion of diplomacy with Iran optimistic. He pointedly said he appreciated Obama's agreement not to take any options—including the military option—off the table. "The worst danger we face is that Iran would develop nuclear military capabilities," he said.
On the other hand, Obama has continually emphasized the need to negotiate with Iran. He said today that he expects to begin discussions with Iranian leaders after their June elections. "Not talking [to Iran], that clearly hasn't worked. That's what's been tried," the president said. "So we're going to try something different, and that's actually engaging and reaching out to the Iranians." Even so, Obama emphasized that "we're not going to talk forever," saying he wouldn't allow talks to "become an excuse for inaction." The administration should have a clear idea by the end of the year as to whether negotiations are productive or must be reassessed, he said.
Iran was only one of the sensitive issues covered in today's talks. The other big bone of contention regarded how to procure Israeli-Palestinian peace. Obama favors a two-state solution. But although Netanyahu said he supports the idea of self-governance for Palestinians, he stopped short of using the same terminology. Even if he had come out in favor of the two-state solution, he would be hobbled by his Likud party, two thirds of whose members resist the effort. Furthermore, he said, the Palestinians must first recognize Israel as a Jewish state. "Then," he said, "I think we can come to a substantive solution."
Obama is following today's talks with a number of other meetings with regional leaders. Next week, he will receive Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House. In early June, he'll travel to Egypt, where he'll talk with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and give a speech addressed to the Muslim world.
Obama's plate may be full with a crumbling economy, healthcare reform, and two wars. But regardless of the outcome of the talks, his early emphasis on the region shows that he knows that, for the sake of international security, peace in the Middle East must be near the top of his list of priorities.
- Read more about Obama's push on Middle East diplomacy.