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?

George Mitchell, special US envoy to the Middle East, is back in the region this week just days after the United States had to abandon its attempt at direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. If nothing else, the US is dogged in its pursuit of peace.

Mr. Mitchell’s trip on the heels of failure brings to mind his comments in August, when he announced direct negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Answering skeptical reporters, Mitchell recalled the long road to peace in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Bosnia:

“It takes patience, persistence, a willingness to go back again and again, to not take the first no as a final no, to not take the 50th no as the final no or the 100th no.”

The world is beyond counting how many times the US has attempted to facilitate the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state since the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, when Israel took possession of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

This last time ended in embarrassing failure. The US was unable to get Israel to freeze settlement building for three months – a Palestinian condition for direct talks – in exchange for a more-than-generous security package and diplomatic promises.

Much of the commentary is that the failure made President Obama look weak. Actually, it shows Mr. Netanyahu as politically feeble, unable to move his coalition and unwilling to risk his government for what is so clearly in Israel’s long-term interest.

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.

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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