Eight months into his presidency, Barack Obama is fast approaching his first real moment of truth on the Middle East.
At the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session next week, the U.S. president will host a ceremonial summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in hopes of launching talks to achieve a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Then, a week later on Oct. 1, Undersecretary of State William Burns will join representatives of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China for the first talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator to see whether an agreement can be reached to curtail President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear weapons program.
This is the diplomatic offensive that Obama promised the U.S. public last year -- the investment in "soft power" that the president's supporters deemed lacking during the George W. Bush administration.
But the White House is facing tough prospects on both fronts. All that fantastical thinking about the transformative power of diplomacy is now headed straight for the iceberg that is the Middle East.
One immovable object is Abbas, who has participated in hundreds of peace negotiations over 15 years with six previous Israeli governments -- all while Israeli settlement construction was proceeding at a brisk pace.
Now, Abbas says that he won't accept the partial freeze that Netanyahu has declared; he'll wait to join peace talks until Israel bows to Washington's unprecedented demand for a total freeze on construction, including in Jerusalem. But that is a condition that no Israeli government is going to accept.
Even if Abbas softens his stand and agrees to begin talks, negotiations will still be in their throat-clearing phase when the Palestinian president's term ends Jan. 10.
With Hamas controlling Gaza there is no agreed electoral mechanism to empower a successor Palestinian president to make concessions on behalf of the Palestinians. Far from achieving transformative success, Obama will be lucky if he can just keep negotiations alive for more than a few weeks.
Source: Foreign Policy