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Obama administration pursues two-state Mideast solution

The president will meet with three leaders from the region in coming weeks. Meanwhile, special envoy George Mitchell finds it tough going.

By / April 25, 2009

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after a press conference in the West Bank last month. The Obama administration has invited the leaders of Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to Washington in an effort to restart peace talks.

Bernat Armangue/AP

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Washington

President Obama plans to host the principles in the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process in separate White House visits over the coming weeks -- signaling the administration’s determination to pursue the two-state solution to the conflict.

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By inviting the leaders of Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority to high-profile Washington visits, Obama is underscoring his administration's adoption as its own of the path to creation of a Palestinian state first articulated by former President Bush in 2002.

The difference is that Obama is making peace a priority from the outset of his administration, while Bush waited until the final months of his mandate -- a point that was too late for progress, most experts in the region say.

“With these invitations, Obama is stressing that his administration is committed to advancing the peace process from day one, and thus he’s differentiating himself from the Bush administration, which waited until the end,” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

The administration may however be setting up a clash with Israel over priorities. Under newly elected conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is shifting the peace process to a slow-cook back burner and moving Iran and its nuclear program to the front and high heat -- a priority flip the administration is already signaling it does not favor.

US wants peace process to advance

In congressional testimony this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration will not “prejudge” the new Israeli government but will wait to hear Mr. Netanyahu’s views when he meets with Obama early next month. Still, she cautioned against any retreat from the peace process that would use the Iranian threat as justification.

“For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-à-vis Iran, it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts,” she told the House Appropriations Committee. “They go hand in hand.”

There’s no doubt that Israel is putting new emphasis on the threat it sees in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, says Mr. Clawson. But he adds that Mr. Netanyahu is also positioning himself to win Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state -- a step no Palestinian leadership has yet taken.

“Officially Netanyahu says he has not yet taken a position on the two-state solution because he says the whole thing is under policy review,” notes Clawson.

“But my sense is that Netanyahu will want to present a common front with Obama when he visits Washington, so he’s focused on using Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state as his bargaining chip for buying into the two-state solution,” he says. “That way he can go home saying Obama pressured him into accepting a hard choice, but one that is a better bargain for Israel, and Obama can say he extracted from Netanyahu Israel’s renewed commitment to the two-state solution.”

Road to peace passes through Jerusalem