Obama works to own Middle East timetable
WASHINGTON - Much of the US media on Tuesday morning flagged up President Barack Obama's statement in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would make a judgement by the end of 2009 as to whether Iran was negotiating in good faith about its nuclear programme.
Some have flagged this up as the kind of "deadline" that his Israeli visitor, Mr Netanyahu, would have liked.
However Monday's statement from the president seems designed more to address those in this country and others who have suggested that his policy of dialogue with Iran is interpreted in that country as a sign of irresolution, something that buys them additional time to work flat out on their military nuclear capability.
Mr Obama indeed bridled when one of the Israeli journalists marched into the Oval Office yesterday and accused him explicitly of weakness in this regard.
The best way to read the president's remarks on Iran is not so much that he is giving Iran a deadline of the "or else" variety.
He has refrained from statements of the "military option remains on the table" kind, speaking instead only vaguely of a "range of steps" open to the US if Iran does not respond favourably by the end of the year. Instead he is saying that his patience is limited.
When it came to timetables it became obvious in Monday's public remarks by president and prime minister that Mr Obama sees 2009 unfolding quite differently to his Israeli visitor.
Whereas Mr Netanyahu wants Iran dealt with before meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians, Mr Obama told him, in front of the cameras, that he wants things the other way around.
The president's Middle East plan for 2009 might therefore go something like this: early June, outreach to the Arab world during visit to Cairo; then await the result of the Iranian presidential elections to calibrate a new diplomatic overture to Tehran; convene a Middle East peace conference some time in late summer or autumn; finally, having gained agreement between Israel and various Sunni Arab regimes to pursue regional peace efforts, increase the pressure on Iran to place their nuclear programme under tight international supervision.
In Monday's meeting it became quite clear that Mr Obama has little patience for Mr Netanyahu's stalling tactics. The president's call for a halt to Jewish settlement activity in the Occupied Territories was pointed, as was his reminder to his Israeli visitor that a Palestinian state must emerge from any peace process.
Since previous Israeli governments signed up to these principles (for example, at the Aqaba Summit of 2003), Mr Netanyahu's attempts to step back on those pledges violates the long standing principle that Israeli governments will honour their predecessors' agreements.
So while Monday's meeting was not quite a train wreck, it certainly marked a public dressing down for the Israeli prime minister. It also showed us quite clearly that Mr Obama's patience will be limited - not just with Iran, but with countries that obstruct his geo-political vision for the Middle East, including Israel.