NAZARETH // Barack Obama signalled his readiness to step deeper into the quagmire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week following a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, at the White House. At a press conference afterwards, Mr Obama stressed the importance of getting the peace process "back on track" by pushing ahead with the creation of a Palestinian state and calling on Israel to halt settlement building.
These were the same demands he made of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at their talks in Washington 10 days earlier. But a few hours after Mr Obama's statement, Israel said it would not adhere to those demands, underlining what commentators have said is the biggest rift in the two countries' "special relationship" in nearly two decades. Both Mr Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have underscored the need for Israel to end the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - now home to half a million Jews - as a prelude to negotiations on creating a Palestinian state.
Asked what he would do if Israel continued to obstruct the process, Mr Obama issued what sounded like a diplomatically worded threat: "If Israel keeps declining to accept the two-state solution and to freeze the settlements Well, I think it's important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best." The terms of the White House's proposed peace plan are still unclear, but indications are that it is being rapidly formulated.
At a meeting with Mr Abbas on Wednesday, Mrs Clinton referred to "very specific proposals" that the administration was pursuing. Mr Obama suggested they would start to be outlined during his trip to the Middle East next week, when he will make his chief stop in Egypt while noticeably avoiding a visit to Israel. In an interview published by The Washington Post yesterday, a confident-sounding Mr Abbas said he was in no hurry to resume talks with either Israel or his Palestinian political rival, Hamas.
"I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements," he told the paper. The Palestinian president has won praise in Washington for putting his security forces under US training and co-ordinating security policy with Israel. Mr Obama's main injunction to Mr Abbas at their meeting was to reduce incitement against Israel in schools and mosques. To make his peace plan stick, Mr Obama will almost certainly need to draw in Arab states, probably reviving a 2002 Saudi proposal for the Arab world to normalise relations with Tel Aviv in return for Israel withdrawing from most of the Palestinian territories it occupied in the 1967 war.
Mr Abbas, however, warned in the Post interview that he could not be relied on to help Washington if Israel did not fulfil its commitments. "We can't talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognises the two-state solution." One of Mr Abbas's officials was quoted as saying that the Palestinian leader did not believe Mr Netanyahu's coalition was capable of freezing settlement growth and he was therefore expecting to wait "a couple of years" for it to fall.
The apparent lack of urgency on Mr Abbas's part contrasted with Mr Obama's position. He told reporters: "I think that we don't have a moment to lose." He said he did not want to impose an "artificial timetable" but hoped his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, would "jump start" the process. Mr Obama did note that Mr Netanyahu would need time to "work through these issues in his own government" - possibly a reference to hopes in Washington that Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party, could be brought into the coalition and the far right parties jettisoned.
A Jerusalem Post editorial suggested, however, that, while being ostensibly closer to White House thinking, Ms Livni would in practice pursue a policy similar to Mr Netanyahu's. "She would wait until after an agreement on final borders before dismantling any settlements. Livni, no less than Netanyahu, opposes unfettered Palestinian sovereignty." Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst, argued that Mr Obama was concentrating on concessions from Mr Netanyahu partly because the Palestinian leadership - split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza - was too weak for demands to be made of it.
"Abbas cannot 'deliver' Gaza and has no realistic plan for reintegrating Hamas into a unity government that could support a new peace process with Israel," he wrote on the Bitterlemons website. Haidar Eid, a professor at al-Aqsa University in Gaza, criticised Mr Abbas for "complacency". "We have 16 years of negotiations and in that time Israel has expanded the settlements, built an apartheid wall and turned Gaza into the largest concentration camp in the world. A two-state solution has become redundant."