President Obama kicks off a series of important meetings on the Middle East when he hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday. The presidents of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority follow later this month.
The White House also has announced that the president will deliver a major speech in Cairo in June on the issue of U.S. relations with the Islamic world.
The busy diplomatic agenda has set high expectations among many in the Arab world.
A New U.S. Peace Initiative?
King Abdullah II of Jordan, who was the first Arab leader to meet President Obama in the White House, says he expects the Obama administration to follow the series of talks with a major new initiative, taking a broader, regional approach in an effort to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The initiative will begin with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and almost simultaneously with talks with Lebanon and Syria, Abdullah said in a recent interview with NPR. He said it will also include "what is the prize for the Israelis: negotiations between the 57 Arab and Muslim states that don't have relations with Israel today."
Abdullah met privately with Netanyahu in Jordan on Thursday. The Israeli leader also met this week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Such an Arab-Israeli peace initiative, first promoted several years ago by Saudi Arabia, would offer Israel normal relations with the Arab world after a viable Palestinian state is negotiated and a solution is found to the problem of resettling or compensating Palestinian refugees.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a Middle East peace envoy, told a Senate panel on Thursday that progress must be made by the end of the year.
"In some sense, it is a moment of truth actually as to whether we, all of us — the international community, Palestinians, Israelis — are prepared to do what is necessary to realize the objective we say is our stated objective," Blair told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Stephen Cohen of the Israel Policy Forum said this week that he has been speaking with Egyptian and Saudi officials who are considering making gestures to Israel, but only if they are sure that Obama is ready to make a push for peace.
"It was clear that they were willing to make commitments to the president [Obama] about things that they would do in order to make the whole process more attractive to Israel, if they were confident that the president had decided to go for the big issues and not be satisfied with baby steps," Cohen said.
Looking For Substance In Obama-Netanyahu Meeting
But Cohen believes that much will depend on Obama's Monday meeting with Netanyahu, who has yet to publicly endorse the two-state solution — Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side — which is promoted by the Arabs and endorsed by the United States.
Cohen said that it is not enough for the Israeli prime minister to whisper privately to Obama that he will work toward a two-state solution. "If they play it in low key, the disappointment in many places in the world will be palpable," Cohen said.
Robert Malley, the Middle East director at the International Crisis Group, said Monday's meeting is likely to be more congenial than most expect.
While Netanyahu served as prime minister in the 1990s, he is new to the office following Israeli elections earlier this year, and Obama is "not angling for a conflict," Malley said.
"We may be on a trajectory toward some kind of tug of war between the two, but we are not there yet," Malley said, in part "because President Obama probably doesn't have a plan yet, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn't want a plan and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas is waiting to have someone put a plan before him."
Abbas is scheduled to visit the White House May 28, two days after Mubarak.
A Go-Slow Approach By Obama?
Malley, who has written an article on Obama's Middle East challenges for the New York Review of Books, argues that it is not in the Obama administration's interest to push anything too fast, especially since it is trying to show the world that it is doing things differently from the Bush administration and listening to all sides.
"Everything I'm hearing is that they want to do this slowly, cautiously and prudently, not take all the time in the world, but when they do something it will actually have an impact," Malley said.
Palestinians are divided, with rival factions controlling the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel's new government seems more interested in dealing with the threat of Iran than negotiating a Palestinian state, Malley said.
The Obama administration needs to "pave the road" for negotiations and work to change the context of the talks. That includes, he says, an end to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, improvements in the lives of Palestinians, and gestures to Israel from the Arab and Muslim world, which could provide a support structure for the Obama administration's eventual diplomatic initiative.