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A More Direct Message
One step forward, two steps back. There's no other way to look at the planned resumption of indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Although it's true that direct talks haven't produced much progress in recent years, having U.S. envoy George Mitchell resort to Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy is one more depressing sign that the current prospects for peace are dim.
The Palestinians' obstinate refusal to sit face to face with Israelis only reinforces the view that they're not serious about finding a way out of the morass.
The announcement that the so-called "proximity" talks would begin in a few weeks coincided with the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem this week.
One of his main goals was reportedly to reassure Israelis that the Obama administration understands Israel's security needs, a point rightly underscored by Jewish organizational officials who met with Biden before his departure.
Biden said all the right things -- at least at the outset.
"There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security," Biden said after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for two hours on Monday.
Biden referred specifically to Iran, which is clearly high on the agenda for both countries. He also praised Netanyahu for his commitment to peace.
"An historic peace is going to require both parties to make some historically bold commitments," said Biden. "You have done it before, and I'm confident for real peace you would do it again."
But then, Biden pointedly condemned the government's decision to approve 1,600 new housing units in eastern Jerusalem, in an Orthodox neighborhood located over the Green Line.
"The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel," said Biden.
Of course, timing is everything. Netanyahu's courageous but politically risky 10-month moratorium on most new settlement building had given Israel the upper hand. Announcing the new construction -- certain to create an uproar -- should never have been allowed to happen just as Biden came to town.
The brouhaha only hands the Palestinians another excuse to obfuscate, having already eschewed direct talks, claiming the less-than-total freeze as the pretext.
Biden may have been frustrated, but he and the president need to keep their eyes on the ball. Settlements are not now -- and have never been -- the reason that the peace process has ground to a virtual halt. If there's any hope that indirect talks will jump-start the process, that message needs to be delivered directly.