Now it is Barack Obama's turn to play peacemaker in the Holy Land. Looking ahead to his June 4 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Obama is drafting what European special envoy Tony Blair calls a "new framework" for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The details are still being worked out as Obama heads into talks with Israel's new prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and then meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
A new U.S. diplomatic push would be a major commitment by Obama, one that officials see as also key to achieving other foreign policy priorities, such as building Arab pressure against Iran's nuclear program and countering Islamic radicalism by showing progress on the hot-button Israeli-Palestinian issue. "Our interest lies not in a lengthy, drawn-out process but in real results," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said this week.
But no one in the region forgets that the last big Mideast initiative, the Bush administration-backed "road map" in 2003, fell by the wayside. If anything, the situation has become only more intractable. Hamas militants now control the Gaza Strip and threaten Israelis and the moderate West Bank Palestinian leadership. And Israelis voted in a right-wing government that is dismissive of past peace moves.
Still, King Abdullah of Jordan came away from his recent meeting with Obama surprisingly upbeat. The king says they talked about an ambitious plan that would aim for a two-state settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and the resolution of disputes between Israel and Syria and Lebanon. Additionally, Abdullah suggested there may be something of a big-bang approach that brings together Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, Europeans, and Americans for a comprehensive "57-state solution," a reference to the number of nations that don't recognize Israel.
For now, Obama needs to get Palestinian and Israeli leaders at least on the same page, and that won't be easy. Abbas has proved to be an ineffectual negotiator, and the hawkish Netanyahu, who visits the White House today, is known for his toughness. He has floated some gestures to ease Palestinians' economic hardships but so far has retreated from the previous Israeli government's commitments on a Palestinian state. What's more, Netanyahu's top priority is stopping Iran's advancing nuclear capabilities. Israeli officials have signaled reluctance to move ahead on key Israeli-Palestinian issues until they have confidence that Obama will do whatever it takes to keep Tehran from getting the bomb.
Already, Mideast experts are buzzing over whether U.S.-Israel relations are headed into a rough patch. Vice President Biden, addressing a pro-Israel group early this month, was surprisingly blunt. "Israel has to work for a two-state solution," he said, adding that "you're not going to like my saying this, but" Israel needs to stop expanding settlements, demolish so-called outposts in the West Bank, and ease the military checkpoints that obstruct Palestinian movement and businesses in the West Bank. "This is a show-me deal," he said. "Not based on faith. Show me."
Chances are Obama and Netanyahu, nimble politicians, will come out smiling after their talks. A key question, though, is whether Netanyahu gives Obama what he wants and needs to move forward: explicit support for the principle of Palestinian statehood.