During his first 100 days in office, U.S. President Barack Obama set his aims high, but he took careful, moderate steps in practice, avoiding confrontations or adventures that might undermine his support in Congress or among the American public. That has also been his approach to the Middle East: Obama has called for a radical change in direction from his predecessor's policies, but at the same time has given relatively low priority to dealing with Israel and its neighbors.
Obama wants to see a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hopes to ease tensions in the region through dialogue with Iran and Syria and, in the future, also with Hamas and others who were boycotted by the Bush administration. Obama cannot afford to continue George Bush's efforts to isolate the "Axis of Evil." The planned U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will create a strategic vacuum in the Middle East, and Egypt is rapidly approaching a change of leadership. Under such uncertain circumstances, the U.S. needs new allies in the region.
The most noteworthy decision made by Obama on the Middle East was the appointment of former senator George Mitchell to mediate between Israel and the Arabs. He thereby fulfilled his campaign promise to be actively involved via a high-level envoy, and also showed "balance" between the parties, thanks to Mitchell's Arab heritage. Obama's call for dialogue with Iran is still awaiting a response, and contacts with Syria have not yet matured to the point of a genuine improvement in ties.
Israel has enjoyed a "waiting period" in its relationship with Obama, but this period will end when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington on May 18. Obama and other senior administration officials have made it clear to Netanyahu that he should not waste their time by turning the visit into a public relations campaign; rather, he must propose practical steps for furthering the diplomatic process and improving the lot of the Palestinians. Netanyahu wants to place Iran at the top of the agenda, but U.S. officials will explain that Israel will have to give something in return.
The ideological affinity and close coordination that Israel enjoyed under Bush left the White House along with the former president. Netanyahu will have to work in order to restore the intimacy and closeness to U.S.-Israel ties.
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