Page last updated at 13:15 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 14:15 UK

Analysis: Can Obama deliver on the Middle East?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington DC (28 May 2009)
President Obama has been reaching out to all sides in the Middle East conflict

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a problem.

Something has changed in Washington. This new US President, Barack Obama, is unlike any that an Israeli leader has faced before.

Certainly he shares Washington's traditional concerns for Israel's security. But his election victory marked a defeat for the neo-conservative Right and the Christian fundamentalists, the ideological camps that have provided the backbone of uncritical support for Israel over recent years.

Mr Obama's popularity extends to America's influential Jewish community - an overwhelming majority of whom voted for him.

The change in mood also extends to Capitol Hill where, when Mr Netanyahu visited Washington, he was left in no doubt that the president's approach is supported by many of Israel's longstanding friends in Congress.

The message has been repeated again and again; no settlement building - period

We already know a good deal about Mr Obama's approach to the Middle East, and we will know a good deal more after his keynote speech due in Cairo in early June.

For a start he has decided to grapple with the Israel-Palestinian issue from the outset of his presidency.

He has appointed a foreign policy team well versed in the intricacies of the region, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, to his veteran peace envoy George Mitchell, and his National Security Adviser General James Jones.

Mr Obama also sees the problems of the region as interlinked. He wants to consolidate a broad Arab coalition against Iran even as he reaches out to Tehran.

To do this he believes that he needs progress on the Palestinian track.

This requires tangible changes on the West Bank to bolster the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This is why discussion has so quickly come to focus on one crucial issue - Israeli settlements.

'Natural growth'

The tone and content of the Obama administration's pronouncements on the settlement issue are clear and to the point.

Palestinians confront an Israeli soldier at a protest against the expansion of the Carmel settlement in the West Bank town of Hebron (26 April 2009)
Construction of settlements began in 1967, shortly after the Six Day War
Some 280,000 Israelis now live in the 121 officially-recognised settlements in the West Bank
A further 190,000 Israelis live in settlements in Palestinian East Jerusalem
The largest West Bank settlement is Maale Adumim, where more than 30,000 people were living in 2005
There are 102 unauthorised outposts which are not officially sanctioned by Israel
Source: Peace Now

The US wants a halt to settlement building. Now.

Mr Netanyahu seems to have at least half got the message.

He is trying to devise some sort of compromise whereby Israel will remove outposts seen as illegal even under Israeli law, but will continue to build in existing settlements to cope with what Israeli spokesmen call their "natural growth".

But this "natural growth" argument is not getting any traction in Washington.

The message has been repeated again and again; no settlement building - period.

Mr Netanyahu may well argue that he is constrained by his highly conservative cabinet, but that argument too is unlikely to carry any weight with Mr Obama.

What is clear, though, is that Mr Netanyahu has little room to manoeuvre.

One issue dominates his thinking - not the Palestinians but the potential nuclear threat from Iran.

Iranian threat

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (14 May 2009)
Mr Netanyahu believes the threat from Iran is imminent

It is impossible to overemphasise the hold this issue has on the Israeli political leadership of all parties.

Iran is seen as presenting an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Mr Netanyahu's greatest priority is to maintain good relations with Mr Obama in order to face up to the Iranian threat when the moment of crisis comes.

And make no mistake, Mr Netanyahu believes that the crisis will come on his watch.

So Mr Netanyahu certainly has a problem. But many other factors are in play too and there is much that we still do not know about Mr Obama's approach to the region.

On the Palestinian front, how far will he push Mr Abbas to form a unity government? In the absence of such unity, will America simply ignore the situation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip?

And what about the Syrian track? Mr Obama is being very cautious about engagement with Damascus, but might this provide an option on which Israel and the US can agree, especially if the Palestinian track falters?

Some of this may become clear after the president's Cairo speech. He wants Israel to make concessions. But he also wants the Arab world as a whole to begin to shift its stance towards Israel.

It is a hugely ambitious approach. Many hardened pundits remain sceptical.

Does Mr Obama have the staying power and will he continue to have the diplomatic capital to invest in this issue? Those are two of the biggest questions of all.

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