Leading article: A grand bargain for the Middle East is achievable

Barack Obama is right to aim high, but must be aware of the dangers
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The Independent Online

There is a sense that the politics of Middle East peacemaking, largely suspended since Israel's general elections, are returning to the boil once again. The United Nations Security Council met yesterday to discuss injecting some impetus into Israeli/Palestinian negotiations.

Meanwhile, the new Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, travelled to Egypt, hoping to build up an anti-Iranian regional coalition. There was also an intervention from King Abdullah of Jordan, warning that unless serious progress is made in peace talks between Israel and its neighbours over the next 18 months another conflict is likely.

Yet the most significant moment in this international re-engagement will come next week when Mr Netanyahu visits Washington for talks with Barack Obama. The Israeli Prime Minister has been talking of a "triple track" approach towards the Palestinians (referring to political, economic and security development in Palestinan areas) but the words "two-state solution" have not passed his lips. Worse, Mr Netanyahu's hard line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has dismissed the peace process with the Palestinians as a "dead end".

Many expect the Israeli Prime Minister next week to try to persuade the White House to focus on Iran's nuclear programme rather than Palestinian peace talks. President Obama needs to impress on Mr Netanyahu that the two-state solution is Washington's primary objective and that US pressure on this front will be unrelenting.

But what should the White House's response be to Israeli concerns over Iran? The Obama administration seems to be keen on entwining this issue with the Israeli/Palestinian problem. At the weekend, James Jones, President Obama's national security adviser, acknowledged Israel's concern about the "existential threat" from Tehran, but went on to argue that "there are a lot of things that you can do to diminish that existential threat by working hard towards achieving a two-state solution".

There is a logic to this approach. By actively addressing Israeli fears about Iran, it should be easier for the US to demand serious compromise from Mr Netanyahu over the Palestinians. Sunni Arab regimes, which are also concerned about Tehran's nuclear programme, would probably be prepared to acquiesce in US pressure on Iran in return for progress towards a Palestinian state. King Abdullah favours a grand bargain, calling for a "57-state solution", which would involve an agreement from the entire Arab and Muslim world to recognise Israel. From Israel's point of view, normalised relations with the likes of Syria would help neutralise the threat of Hizbollah and other hostile groups on its borders.

Any strategy that has a chance of reconciling Israel and its neighbours deserves support. But the White House must be careful that by conflating these problems, it does not end up making progress on any one of them impossible. It must guard especially against the Netanyahu administration stalling on the Palestinian peace process on the pretext of the continued threat from Iran.

King Abdullah believes that President Obama enjoys "tremendous credibility" in the Arab world. The next few months will be critical in determining whether that credibility will simply drain away, or whether it will be used to create progress towards an enduring Middle East peace settlement.