Obama faces double dilemmas in Mideast
Results of elections this week in Israel are likely to ensure a pivotal role for rightist Benjamin Netanyahu, whose tough statements on Iran reflect the distrust of Israeli voters. And unlike many Israelis, his aim in dealing with the Palestinians does not include immediate peace negotiations.
Netanyahu says he wants to focus on reviving the Palestinian economy and leave peacemaking for later. At the same time, he wants to expand the Israeli population on the West Bank beyond the current total of nearly 300,000.
The Palestinians, moderate or extremist, have other plans for the area: forcing the Israelis to withdraw and making the territory part of a Palestinian state.
Tzipi Livni, who has moved from hard-line to centrist over the years and accepts the principle of yielding territory, still is in the running for Israeli prime minister, along with Netanyahu. On the distant right is the Yisrael Beitenu Party's Avigdor Lieberman, who might gain a toehold in the government.
Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, observed in an interview that with the clear "shift to the right," it's likely Netanyahu ultimately will become prime minister with a coalition Cabinet that "would not very easily produce a broad-based agreement with the Palestinians."
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast negotiator, had an even bleaker assessment of the election results, saying they would "reduce the possibility of a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians from slim to none."
If Netanyahu takes over the Israeli government or plays a leading role in it, that would at the least complicate Obama's hopes to induce the Palestinians to negotiate.
Still, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Wednesday the Obama administration intends to pursue a robust agenda once the new Israeli leadership is established.
He said this includes a second trip to the area by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell before the end of the month.
"We want to do things differently in the region," Obama said at his White House news conference Monday.
That would involve accelerating efforts to promote Mideast peace talks as well as having discourse with Iran in an environment of "mutual respect," Obama said.
At the same time, Obama has condemned threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the map. Obama has also warned that the U.S. won't tolerate Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
While Iran denies it is trying to make nuclear weapons, its uranium enrichment process continues, and that puts pressure on Israel to possibly make a pre-emptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
That could torpedo Obama's hopes for good relations with Tehran, so he may be impelled to apply pressure of his own on a new Israeli government.
On the Iran front, however, Lewis said he did not think the rightward shift in Israel would affect U.S. efforts to open negotiations.
"Both the Israelis and we have a mutual interest in trying a diplomatic effort to stop their programs," he said.
If sanctions and diplomacy do not work to halt Iran's programs, only military action will be an option, Miller said. Then, he added, "Obama will have to decide what to do."