WASHINGTON - Words matter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.That's why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to say two-state solution could make for a rocky start in U.S. President Barack Obama's first major foray into Middle East diplomacy.

Obama meets Netanyahu at the White House on Monday and will host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak later this month as part of a promised effort to revive the long-stalled Middle East peace process.

Obama's aides have played down the prospect of a confrontational meeting between Obama, who supports Palestinian statehood, and Netanyahu, who as head of a new right-leaning government has balked at the goal of Palestinian independence.

But tensions will be hard to avoid.

Though normally on the same page diplomatically as their superpower ally, Israeli leaders are also wary of Obama's overtures to their arch-enemy, Iran.

Beyond historic ties and areas of common interest, the Israeli government doesn't view the environment as ripe for peace as the Obama administration does, said David Schenker, an analyst at the Institute for Near East Policy.

Since taking office in January, Obama has pledged to make Middle East peacemaking a high priority, in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush, who was accused of neglecting the decades-old conflict.

Obama sees Israeli-Palestinian progress as crucial to repairing the U.S. image in the Muslim world and to convincing moderate Arab states to join a united front against Iran.

But Netanyahu has signaled he regards confronting the Iranian threat -- and halting what Israel believes to be Tehran's push for nuclear weapons -- as more urgent than the pursuit of elusive peace with the Palestinians.

In the run-up to next week's summit, the Obama administration has urged Netanyahu to embrace the principle of two states, the basis for U.S. Middle East policy for years, and to halt expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land, which was seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

So far, he has resisted such calls.


What remains to be seen is how hard Obama will be willing to lean on Netanyahu -- who is making his first U.S. visit since taking office on March 31 -- in face-to-face talks.

It will be a delicate balancing act. Obama wants to show the broader Middle East he will be more even-handed than Bush, whom most Arabs considered biased in favor of Israel.

But he will also be mindful that if he exerts too much pressure, he could undermine Netanyahu at home and face heavy opposition from many of Israel's U.S. supporters, which would distract from the top priority of rescuing the U.S. economy.

There have been signs that Obama, who is yet to articulate a detailed Middle East strategy, may try to lure Netanyahu into concessions with the promise of a comprehensive peace deal.

Jordan's King Abdullah, who visited the White House last month, told the Times of London this week the Obama administration was ready to push a peace plan in which the entire Muslim world would recognize Israel.

But Obama aides have cautioned against expecting any major new initiatives or breakthroughs from the latest talks.

Netanyahu will also have to walk a fine line. He can ill afford the perception at home that he is alienating Israel's chief ally. But neither can he be seen giving up too much if he wants to keep the right-wing core of his coalition intact.

There has been speculation, however, that Netanyahu might try to frame the statehood issue in terms like autonomy or self-governance while saying talk of a state must wait until the Palestinians develop their economy and institutions.

Palestinians see such arguments as a ploy to deny them independence and insist that Netanyahu must endorse their quest for statehood before negotiations can resume.

With trust low between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama is expected to press Netanyahu for gestures such as releasing prisoners and easing West Bank roadblocks to help shore up Abbas and his Palestinian Authority. Abbas, politically weakened by Hamas control of Gaza, will meet Obama on May 28.

The Iranian issue is also expected to loom large. Israel, believed to be the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, considers Iran its biggest security threat and has backed international pressure to curb its nuclear program.

But Israeli leaders have raised concern about Obama's effort to engage Iran and have not ruled out military strikes if they decide diplomacy has failed. Iran says its uranium enrichment activities are for generating electricity.

Analysts expect the Obama administration to use Netanyahu's visit to urge his government not to act precipitously.

They will be firm that unilateral action by Israel is not in anyone's interest, said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.