One week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits President Obama, Saudi King Abdullah made a stop of his own at the White House. Among his messages: You must put more pressure on the Israelis, Mr. President, if your peace initiative for the Middle East is to come to fruition.
But Obama’s string of Middle East visitors – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was at the White House June 9 – will have given the president a pretty good idea of what, if anything, is to be accomplished by pushing ahead on Middle East diplomacy in the coming months.
“The administration sees this as a string of meetings, concluding with next week’s visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu, that won’t just take a reading of the environment but will be able to help move the peace negotiations along,” says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
But what Obama and his team are more likely to confront, Mr. Phillips says, are the stark differences that continue to make Mideast peace an unsolvable puzzle for the administration.
Impatience with the pace of negotiations
“It’s no secret that the Saudis have expressed their impatience with the pace of peace negotiations, and believe that the only way to change that is for the administration to put even more pressure on Israel,” he says.
Then there is Netanyahu, who is also impatient with the US, but for a different reason.
“The Israeli leader has held since the beginning of his government that Iran is the most urgent problem facing Israel and the international community,” Phillips says. “They [in the Israeli government] feel Obama has been slow to grasp just how urgent the threat is.”
In a brief photo opportunity with reporters, Obama said he and the king discussed a number of issues including Afghanistan. US officials have expressed concern that Saudi money continues to flow in support of the Taliban, and that issue will have been all the more sensitive given that the US and NATO forces have suffered their deadliest month of the war in June.
The US and Saudi Arabia are also on different pages when it comes to the issue of reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Phillips says.
Hamid Karzai and the Taliban
“The Saudis are trying to broker something between [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and the Taliban,” he says, “while the US would prefer to move to serious negotiations only after some ‘progress,’ from our point of view, on the battlefield.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was also scheduled to meet separately after the Abdullah lunch with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal. Some Saudi experts speculated that the second meeting could be the venue for discussion of the Saudis’ bid to purchase a large number of advanced F-15 fighter jets.
The US has been slow to approve the fighter deal, but the Saudis are expected to make the case that Iran’s growing influence in the region makes the purchase increasingly urgent.
“Arms sales like these are always a delicate matter, because they bring up the region’s military balance and how such arms could potentially threaten Israel,” says Phillips. “But the Saudis can certainly make the case to Washington that Iran is a growing threat, so their argument seems to grow for getting such sophisticated planes.”