Commentary: Obama and Netanyahu may spark a shift in policy

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with President Barack Obama in the White House Monday, the meeting will mark the start of a radical new approach aimed at solving the conflicts in the Middle East. The media, no doubt, will focus much of its attention on Obama's pressure on the Israeli leader to support the creation of a Palestinian state. That issue will monopolize the questions in the press conferences and will grab the headlines. But the headlines will miss the point.

The Obama administration will score international points by openly pushing for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Like a good magician, however, the president will draw our eyes in one direction while making the truly important moves where we don't see them.

Obama understands perfectly well that if Israel handed the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority under current conditions, the situation would quickly become far worse for Palestinians and for Israelis.

The Iran-backed Hamas militias would easily defeat the forces of Mahmoud Abbas, just as they did after Israel withdrew from Gaza. Given Hamas' strength relative to the PA, its vow to destroy Israel and its strong support from Iran, a withdrawal from the West Bank right now is out of the question – unless there is a major change in the situation. When the balance of power on the other side no longer favors those who want to destroy Israel, Netanyahu, or whoever is prime minister then, will be quick to stand behind the two-state solution.

That's where Washington's new plan comes in. Building on a plan by former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Obama will widen the scope of his peace efforts. Instead of placing all the attention on Israeli-Palestinian relations, the White House will expand its efforts to encompass the entire Arab world.

Arab countries privately express profound fear at the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran has armed and stoked Hamas and Hezbollah and is likely to stir more unrest throughout the region.

Not only do Hamas and Hezbollah seek the destruction of Israel, they have used armed force to make power-grabs in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, killing their own people in the process. An Iran-backed Hezbollah cell has been uncovered plotting attacks in Egypt, and Iranians have made confrontational comments in Morocco, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Egypt will play a key role in Obama's efforts to build a coalition against the unwilling; a grouping challenging those who refuse peace with Israel and stand with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

That's why Obama just announced a major speech on June 4 to the Muslim world from Cairo. Obama will seek to persuade Arab regimes and populations to stand on the side of peace and progress. That means standing in support of the Palestinian Authority and against Hamas. It means starting a process of gradual normalization of relations with Israel.

The Cairo speech will seek to heal the battered relations between Washington and Muslims, but it will do more than that.

There is a reason why Obama chose Egypt for the speech rather than, say, Jakarta, the capital of a democratic Muslim majority country. The Indonesian capital, where Obama lived as a child, was considered a shoo-in to host the president for his major address. The speech, however, has objectives that go beyond symbolic and rhetorical. It will play a key tactical role in Obama's new Middle East strategy.

By aiming to persuade Arabs to build a new alliance and thus isolating Iran and Hamas, Washington will seek to bolster moderates and weaken rejectionists. Egypt may be an undemocratic country, but it does have relatively strong relations with Israel. Cairo also challenged Iran, openly accusing Tehran of having nefarious designs on the region.

If Obama's highly ambitious idea bears fruit, we should first see diplomatic and commercial gestures from Arab countries toward Israel. Eventually, we would see a weakened Hamas, a strengthened Palestinian Authority and – crucially – an Iran without nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the creation of a Palestinian state would become a realistic prospect.

That's a huge "if" – but there aren't many other viable alternatives on the table.

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