The thorny religious and political debates President Obama steps into today with his commencement address at Notre Dame University — where anti-abortion advocates are decrying his receiving an honorary degree as contrary to the Church’s views on life — might seem as pleasant as a trip to his 7-year-old daughter’s soccer game compared to the Mid-east peace process debates the president will face Monday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the US Sunday, with his entourage feeling "tense," according to Israeli media, in anticipation of his meeting Monday with President Obama.
President Obama will push Netanhayu on pursuing negotiations with Palestinian leaders and halting settlements in disputed territories — including the growth of current settlements.
Netanyahu has so far refused to embrace a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, and to stop continued construction of current settlements on land Israel captured in the 1967 war.
"The President is very clear that his commitment to pursue peace between Israel and the Palestinians that’s based on a formula of a secure Jewish state of Israel living side by side next to an independent, viable Palestinian state," an Obama administration official told reporters in a conference call on Saturday. "It’s a principle that guides his efforts and has been the foundation of many past efforts on this issue."
Referring to the 2003 "road map" that also called upon the Palestinian leadership to halt terrorist attacks against Israel, the official said that Israel has an obligation to halt the construction of settlements.
The Obama official said that US Special Envoy George Mitchell "has done the important groundwork to now make this the appropriate time for the President to deal directly with his counterparts as the leaders of these countries… All parties to this process have responsibilities and obligations to make it work, to give us a chance to be successful in our efforts to achieve these peace agreements. The Israelis have obligations related to settlements and outposts. The Palestinians have obligations relating to security and terrorism. The Arab states have responsibilities to build upon their peace initiative."
The two new leaders seem destined for a showdown on these issues.
"We think that the Israeli stance is clear," an official from Netanyahu’s entourage told Ynet. "Israel will maintain its demands regarding its identity as a Jewish state, the importance of its security and its fear of having another army to deal with west of Jordan."
Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a close Netanyahu ally, told Ynet that settlements will not halt.
"The greater Jerusalem should continue to be built, and based on all the understandings – including the ones reached with the Americans – it should be built and reinforced. This includes, in my personal view, the construction in the E1 area, which is part of Maaleh Adumim, and will maintain the contiguity with Jerusalem. All Zionist parties in Israel believe that the settlement blocs must be boosted and built up, in line with the issue of natural growth."
But Netanyahu will not support the construction of new settlements, Katz said.
"Bibi," as Netanyahu is known in Israel, will propose a new road map towards peace, allies said.
Specifically, Katz said he would call for a joint American-Israel collaboration on an alternative Mideast peace policy "which will replace previous initiatives such as the Arab initiative and the diplomatic dialogue conducted by the previous government." Katz said "later it would be possible to bring in moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan, and with American encouragement even states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others."
President Obama recently discussed with Jordan’s King Abdullah the "possibility of taking this Arab Peace Initiative, which is, as the President has said, a constructive contribution to efforts to achieve Middle East peace, and building on it and making it an even stronger contributor to moving forward."
King Abdullah told AFP that President Obama will soon unveil a new plan for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
"We expect an announcement from the US administration," Abdullah said, "of its plan to restart negotiations to achieve a comprehensive solution."
Abdullah said "a resolution to the conflict is an American strategic interest. And we hope that it will announce this plan as soon as possible, because lost time undermines the chances for peace. There is a tremendous need to move quickly, seriously and effectively."
And the King warned that "the possibilities of a new round of violence, a new war, will increase and the region and the world will pay the price," if peace talks are further delayed.
An issue where there may be more agreement tomorrow involves Iran.
Netanyahu will commit to Obama on Monday to alerting the U.S. before attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“I believe that the government of Israel will have a commitment to no surprises, a commitment not to bolt out of the blue,” an official with a pro-Israel organization told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
"The President recognizes the urgency of the issue as it relates to our interest and to our friends’ interest," an Obama administration official said.
In an interview with Newsweek, President Obama said "I’ve been very clear that I don’t take any options off the table with respect to Iran. I don’t take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period." He added, "I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They’re right there in range and I don’t think it’s my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.
That said, Mr. Obama said "we are going to reach out" to Iran "and try to shift off of a pattern over the last 30 years that hasn’t produced results in the region." And at the same time, he would "make an argument to Israel as an ally that the approach we are taking is one that has to be given a chance and offers the prospect of security, not just for the United States but also for Israel, that is superior to some of the other alternatives."
Israeli President Shimon Peres, for one, sounds optimistic. "I think it is a very encouraging and timely proposition," Peres said at the World Economic Forum on the banks of the Dead Sea. "Time has come to depose war, hatred and terror and come to real business — how to assure the life, the safety and the future of our children We were negotiating with them (the Palestinians) for quite a while. I think the gap was narrowed and I do believe it is a bridgeable gap. With… a little bit of fresh ideas, it can be bridged."
President Obama will meet at the White House with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 26 and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on May 28.