Eight months into his presidency, Barack Obama is fast approaching his first real moment of truth on the Middle East. At the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session next week, the U.S. president will host a ceremonial summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in hopes of launching talks to achieve a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then, a week later on Oct. 1, Undersecretary of State William Burns will join representatives of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China for the first talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator to see whether an agreement can be reached to curtail President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear weapons program.
This is the diplomatic offensive that Obama promised the U.S. public last year -- the investment in "soft power" that the president's supporters deemed lacking during the George W. Bush administration. But the White House is facing tough prospects on both fronts. All that fantastical thinking about the transformative power of diplomacy is now headed straight for the iceberg that is the Middle East.
One immovable object is Abbas, who has participated in hundreds of peace negotiations over 15 years with six previous Israeli governments -- all while Israeli settlement construction was proceeding at a brisk pace. Now, Abbas says that he won't accept the partial freeze that Netanyahu has declared; he'll wait to join peace talks until Israel bows to Washington's unprecedented demand for a total freeze on construction, including in Jerusalem. But that is a condition that no Israeli government is going to accept. Even if Abbas softens his stand and agrees to begin talks, negotiations will still be in their throat-clearing phase when the Palestinian president's term ends Jan. 10. With Hamas controlling Gaza there is no agreed electoral mechanism to empower a successor Palestinian president to make concessions on behalf of the Palestinians. Far from achieving transformative success, Obama will be lucky if he can just keep negotiations alive for more than a few weeks.
The Iranian talks look even more likely to end without resolution. On what seems like a daily basis, Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reaffirm their determination to accelerate Iran's nuclear program and add to the rapidly growing stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. The talks are not likely to throw them off this path.
When both of these diplomatic initiatives grind down, then, and hopes for change fade, the U.S.-Israel relationship will face new strains. Obama can tolerate an impasse on the Iranian front for some time, but Netanyahu cannot. Although Obama and his advisors certainly do not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, some find the prospect of an attack against the Islamic Republic even more frightening. As the countdown to a nuclear Iran draws ever near, many top Netanyahu advisors have a different view.
On the Palestinian file, the opposite is true: It is Obama who cannot live with an impasse and the Israelis who can. Since 2005, when Israel withdrew every soldier and 8,000 settlers from Gaza, only to be rewarded by a Hamas coup and thousands of Qassam rockets, Israelis have been skeptical that further Oslo Accords-type agreements can enhance their security. The idea of negotiating with the Palestinians to pull the Israeli army out of the West Bank, for example, doesn't inspire much public enthusiasm. Trouble is, many Americans do still believe in the Oslo idea. And a breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian talks would put enormous strains on Washington's relations with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia that need diplomatic movement to quiet domestic tensions. Allowing the talks to fail would also be unacceptable to the European Union and profoundly unsettling to important parts of Obama's own political coalition. Without a peace process, there will be more pressure for anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, leaving Obama with a bitter choice between using the U.S. veto to prevent them or allowing them to pass, imperiling an ally and inflaming demands for U.S. sanctions against Israel.
There is yet one more wild card in all of this: Obama's door is open to advisors who want to break with Israel. Many on the left of the Democratic Party believe that Israel is the obstacle to peace and that a breakthrough could be achieved if Obama just twisted Israel's arm. Of course, this was always the view of some of the storied Arabists in the State Department, but today, it comes more influentially from Jewish American critics of Israeli policy who depict themselves as pro-Israel and pro-peace. Faced with the reality that only the 3 percent of Israelis who vote Meretz share such views, and that the dovish camp led by Yossi Beilin has no prospect of winning an election in the actual Jewish state, the Beilinist Israeli left has moved to Washington. Their goal is to lobby the U.S. president to "save Israel from herself" by imposing terms on Israel that the great majority of Israelis would reject.
Obama is poorly positioned to reach over Netanyahu's head to persuade the Israeli people to embrace this agenda. A Sept. 12 poll put Bibi's approval rating at 65 percent, while similar polls by Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post found that only 12 and 6 percent of Israelis, respectively, think that Obama is pro-Israel. If elections were held today, Likud would gain five additional seats, and Bibi's coalition would grow at the expense of the left, which has already been decimated by a public rebuff.
Some Netanyahu advisors think that Obama is himself a man of the left and that top aides like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod are closet J-Streeters in the White House. Instead, however, Obama and his top advisors are instinctively drawn to the center-left, like Bill and Hillary Clinton. He is more likely to take advice from the National Security Council's Dennis Ross than from more-leftist deputy Mideast peace envoy Mara Rudman or the ubiquitous peace pundit Daniel Levy.
In short, all that is clear is that Obama's big Mideast moment is coming. Now the world waits to see what kind of U.S. president he wants to be.
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign-policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and was a defendant in the recently dismissed AIPAC case. He is now director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum and a consultant to the Council for World Jewry.