Obama Hits Ground Running to Broker Peace between Israelis, Palestinians

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A flurry of diplomatic activity in the Middle East has marked Barack Obama's first months as president.

He appointed a special envoy to help kick-start peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis. He spoke in June to the Muslim world from Cairo University -- an address that was largely received positively around the region, although many listeners said they would wait to see if action followed Obama's familiar flowing rhetoric.

Yet with so many intractable issues -- the ever-festering Arab- Israeli conflict, surging violence in Iraq as U.S. troops withdraw, and Iran's continued development of nuclear capabilities among them - - the thorny Middle East has never been an easy region for any president.

"President Obama has taken on an ambitious agenda in the Middle East and, not surprisingly, he is facing some problems now," says Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin.

Not the least of those is growing Israeli anger over U.S. pressure on the Jewish state.

Last week, Obama welcomed Egyptian President Husni Mubarak to the White House and spoke by phone with Jordan's King Abdullah about Arab-Israeli issues.

Although Mubarak's visit was his first to the United States in five years, it was just the latest of Obama's many meetings with Middle Eastern leaders.

The Egyptian hailed Obama's Cairo address for showing the United States can be a fair broker. In it, Obama called on Israel to halt its settlements in the West Bank and on Palestinians to halt attacks against Israelis.

After his meeting with Mubarak, however, Obama toned down his recent criticisms of Israel for refusing to stop settlement building. He urged Arab states to make meaningful good-will gestures toward Israel, to restart negotiations -- a step they are reluctant to take until Israel does more.

"The Arab states feel that they went down that road in the '90s - - during the Oslo peace-agreement era -- "and it didn't help," says Dunne. "The Arab states don't accept the logic."

In 2002, the Saudis pushed a peace agenda and promised normal Arab relations with Israel if a treaty was signed.

Disunity within the Palestinian leadership, both ideologically and geographically, further complicates negotiations, experts say.

"I am skeptical that the (Israeli) settlements are the biggest obstacles to peace. It is terrorism," says James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

"As long as terrorism exists, as long as Hamas has a stronghold over Gaza, there is no chance for a peace agreement."

After Obama's Cairo speech, some Egyptian human-rights and democracy activists hoped for a stronger U.S. stand against abuses, for more of a domestic political opening. Yet some see last week's warm meeting between the U. …