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A Piece Of The Middle East Puzzle

Background and analysis by CBS News State Department reporter Charles Wolfson.


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu comes to the White House Monday to see President Barack Obama the most important part of the meeting will not appear on the official agenda.

Yes, the two newly elected leaders will talk about Iran; yes, they will talk about a "two-state" solution; and yes, they will talk about a settlement freeze but more than anything Mr. Obama and his visitor will be sizing up each other because both understand that no matter their agreements or differences they need to get along for at least several more years. The closer they can work together the easier the U.S.-Israel relationship will be to manage and the greater the possibility for peace in the region.

Netanyahu comes knowing he and the new president have different views on the big issues. While both countries oppose Iran's efforts to build a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu and the Israelis think Tehran will reach its goal faster than most American analysts do and is urging military action to stop the effort. Mr. Obama has signaled a wish to give his new diplomatic efforts a chance to work

Although the U.S. and several past Israeli governments have based their peace process policy with the Palestinians on a "two-state" solution, Netanyahu has refused so far to endorse that position as a goal.

As for a settlements freeze, the Israeli leader is under heavy pressure from his political backers not to commit to one while the Obama administration wants to see such a step taken, in part to show moderate Arab states the Israelis are willing to make some important concessions to the Palestinians.

Martin Indyk, twice a former American envoy to Israel, notes Mr. Obama is "not a confrontational type" of leader and will look for ways to get things done with Netanyahu. Moreover, Indyk and others point out, the new American leader believes in a foreign policy strategy where issues are linked together and where the U.S. does not go it alone.

For the White House the meeting with Israel's leader is just one piece of the Middle East puzzle. Jordan's King Abdullah has already been to Washington and before the month is out Mr. Obama will host Egypt's Hosni Mubarek and Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, in the Oval office.

Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center says the meeting with Netanyahu has to be seen in the context of the Obama administration "shifting gears and taking the offensive on the peace process" after spending its first several months in "crisis management" because of the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

And the upcoming series of Oval office meetings follow the administration's previous moves to name former Senator George Mitchell as a special envoy for peace process issues and the steps it has taken to twice send senior officials to Damascus to begin to repair relations with Syria.

Mr. Obama has "an instinct for the high road, flying high and fast," Indyk says, but some of his advisors are cautioning a slower pace. Everyone of course is aware of the possibility of failure. But Indyk adds that no American president can take the high road alone and, pointing to two former leaders in the region, Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein, Indyk adds to take risks for peace "you have to get leaders in the region to fly with you." No one expects any such commitments this month, but there may be no more important aspect of policy making than getting to know those who will be with you and those who will not.