European diplomats believe Netanyahu will be better able to keep his coalition together through a freeze on settlements if he can demonstrate western resolve on Iran.
Meanwhile, the Gulf Arab states are increasingly nervous about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and the offer of a US security umbrella, hinted at by Clinton last month, will help cement their contribution to an Israeli-Palestinian deal, in the form of recognition.
However, two big question marks hang over this strategy. Can sanctions against Iran’s oil and gas sector work, and can they generate sufficient regional momentum both to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks and to carry those negotiations through to a settlement before the end of Obama’s first term, as the White House is hoping?
Middle East analysts in Washington share the growing confidence of the Obama administration that he can secure a deal on resuming talks. But they are sceptical that the gap will be easily or quickly closed between an Israeli government filled with rightwing hawks, a weak Palestinian leadership and cautious Arab states.
Even if all the pieces were to fall into place for Obama, they doubt a peace deal could be achieved and implemented in less than six to seven years. Aaron David Miller, a former state department adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs, said: “I think they will succeed in getting some sort of announcement and event. Beyond that, I doubt they will get an agreement on the big issues.”
The main decision for Obama then would be whether he waits until the Israelis and Palestinians have exhausted negotiations and steps in to bridge the gap, or whether he lays down a rough idea of the US’s envisaged peace settlement early on.
David Makovsky, who co-authored a book on the Middle East with White House adviser Dennis Ross, said: “I think the US will only put forward a bridging proposal after negotiations. You can bridge over a lake or river but not an ocean. They will not put forward an Obama plan. He cannot come in at beginning but only at end.”
Meanwhile, by hitching prospects of Middle East peace to the west’s ability to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, Washington is increasing the chance that a breakdown in Iran policy will upset the precarious Israeli-Palestinian balance.