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The Monitor's View

Team Obama enters a new phase in Israel, Palestinian talks

Direct talks failed over settlements. Now it's indirect talks over core issues. But if Netanyahu couldn't deliver on settlements, which he called a 'peripheral' issue, how can he agree on more fundamental problems?

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Now, the US is back to the shuttle diplomacy of indirect talks, although apparently more robust ones. “We will push the parties to grapple with core issues,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a speech on Dec. 10.

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On her list: borders and security arrangements; settlements, water, and refugees; and the toughest, the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

Netanyahu has, of course, responded favorably to the change. Dismissing settlements as a “peripheral” issue, he said on Dec. 13 that he looked forward to talking about core issues, and that “when these gaps are narrowed, we will proceed to direct talks.”

This path will test Netanyahu’s professed commitment to a two-state solution. If he can’t agree on a “peripheral” problem, how can he bring his government to compromise on core issues?

It could be that settling borders will largely solve the settlement question, because Jewish settlements on the Israeli side of the border would be able to grow as much as they wish. Whether Palestinians can go forward without a settlement freeze remains to be seen. Indeed, it’s hard for them to have much faith in negotiations when the land they want is being taken away by Jewish settlers.

The Obama administration is obviously at a new phase in Middle East peacemaking. Some say it’s time for Mr. Obama to take another bold step, laying out the administration’s own plan for a two-state solution and using that blueprint to guide negotiating. Secretary Clinton left that option open, saying that the US would offer its own ideas “when appropriate.”

Obama could be helped in pressuring Israel if more countries besides Brazil and Argentina recognize Palestine, and if Europe moves toward limited sanctions on Israel for continuing to build settlements – as 26 former European officials have suggested.

Others suggest it’s time for the US to step back, because Washington can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.

The flip to this, however, is that the parties also can’t make peace happen alone. They need a facilitator to hide behind, and to push. And given the harm done to the US by terrorists who use the Palestinian plight as an excuse, Washington has an incentive to intervene even if the parties are less enthusiastic about a peace deal.

Team Obama has just learned that it couldn’t win a settlements deal. Now it will see whether it can make progress by pursuing the endgame on core issues. The world can be grateful that it is not willing to take “no” for an answer, and that it is still trying.

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