updated 3/17/2010 6:38:02 PM ET 2010-03-17T22:38:02

The path to peace in the Middle East gets no easier just because rage over a diplomatic slap by Israel is giving way to calmer words.

President Barack Obama faces the same reality, only more difficult now: Mideast peace is hard to envision, choices are limited, and expectations for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president are soaring. He has shown a willingness to call out an ally for undermining peace, yet he now endures criticism for reproaching a friend.

Obama's strategy has been to leave the scolding and diplomatic work to lieutenants while the fallout of an embarrassing rift is fresh. He appears to be staying on the sidelines to avoid escalating the fight, ever focused on domestic concerns before an economically bruised nation.

But it will ultimately be on him to find a way out, let alone forward, on Mideast peace.

At stake is international credibility for Obama, and stability for a region that bedevils U.S. presidents even when friends aren't fighting.

Housing flap, then smoothing
The White House is standing by its condemnation of its ally Israel after a housing decision that had ramifications across the spectrum: an undermined peace process, an insulted U.S. vice president and a blow to the trust between two governments whose relationship is central to security in an explosive part of the globe.

Israel's announcement of plans to build 1,600 more Jewish homes in disputed east Jerusalem — with Vice President Joe Biden in the midst of a relationship-building visit — meant that one of the settlements that has impeded negotiations with Palestinians would only get larger.

First came uproar, and since then, a smoothing.

Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have talked anew. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the face of the U.S. response, dressed down Netanyahu by telephone last week and is still waiting back for responses from him, but she assures that the bond between the U.S. and Israel is unshakable.

Yet it sure seems shaken, adding to the difficulty of Obama's efforts.

He must show that he means it when demanding good faith and concessions toward peace from Israel, even if that means angering powerful political forces at home whose support is vital to his agenda. He must be careful not to overplay that hand.

"At this point, it doesn't make sense for the president to get involved in the dispute in any public way," said Haim Malka, a Middle East scholar for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Can't 'abandon the issue'
"It's not in the interest of the Obama administration or the Netanyahu government to prolong the tension because there are more pressing common security challenges in the region to deal with," he said. But he added that Obama can't "abandon the issue of Israeli-Palestinian talks which he has publicly supported."

The timing of the controversy comes as Obama is already consumed with a fight to overhaul the U.S. health insurance system. He is the manager of two wars, a jobless economic recovery and a political party heading toward House and Senate elections in an unforgiving environment for incumbents.

"He's got to figure out what's really important to him," said Aaron David Miller, formerly a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administration and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"If Arab-Israeli peace is really important, then he's going to have to make certain adjustments in an effort to go after it," he said. "Chances are, rather than 'breakthrough' or 'breakdown' with respect to the U.S.-Israeli relationship, you're going to end up with 'muddle through.'"

Obama has promised the world a lot more than that.

In a seminal speech at Cairo University last year, Obama said the only resolution to the brutal stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians is for both to live in secure, peaceful states of their own. His predecessor, George W. Bush, offered that vision, too, but was blamed by critics for investing too little in it.

Progress hard to find
Obama throttled up expectations in his speech: "I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires. "

After nearly 14 months in office, Obama's commitment is not in doubt, scholars say. But progress is hard to find. The rift with Israel put a sharper focus on the bilateral relationship, but the deeper challenge is in all the years-long issues that have denied any real chance for peace, from the status of Jerusalem to the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Miller sees one way out for Obama: finding an agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state, which could free space for progress on other issues.

"The reality is that on his watch, four or eight years, the idea of a Palestinian state will either come to fruition or become part of the trash heap of history," Miller said. "He will be the president who will be perceived to have allowed the opportunity to slip by. That, for a president who looks at himself as an heir to FDR and Lincoln, I think, may well encourage him to keep trying."

It is essential, adds Malka, for Obama and his team to recharge Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — and not just because they might lead to a breakthrough.

Rather, he said, the absence of such talks makes it even harder on the U.S. to manage other matters in the Middle East, chiefly the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Obama is finding out just how much of that pledged patience he'll need.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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