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September 3, 2010
No Time to Walk
It's going to take a lot of diplomacy -- and more -- to keep the fledgling Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations going. No one expected these talks to be easy, but if the parties are serious, they will persevere despite disagreements that will inevitably arise.
Not surprisingly, a huge brouhaha has erupted over Israel's decision not to extend its 10-month moratorium on settlement construction.
It's very easy to fault Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- as the international community, led by the Obama administration, is doing -- for not taking the seemingly simple step of extending the settlement freeze. But as anyone who follows the region knows, there is nothing simple when it comes to Israeli politics or Israeli-Arab relations.
Netanyahu is under intense pressure from his own coalition government on the settlements question. If he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts -- and garner the public support they require -- he has to practice pragmatism as well as principle.
More to the point is the question of fairness. Netanyahu offered the unprecedented moratorium -- at great political risk -- as a way to coax the Palestinians to the table. It still took nine months for them to show up. Now the settlements are a matter to be resolved between the parties, one of several thorny issues with which the two sides must grapple. Why should Israel prematurely concede on the settlements when the talks are just getting started?
Moreover, it is clear that if the parties are miraculously able to reach an agreement, the basic contours of such a deal are well-known -- and would inevitably involve Israel retaining control over most of the major settlement blocs. If that's the case, why should residents of those areas be forced to refrain from minor expansions?
To their credit, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appear to be trying to find a way out of the morass. Netanyahu has suggested ways to limit the building and has urged restraint among the settlers. The prime minister also once again reiterated his commitment to the process: "I believe with a full heart that it is in our power to get to a framework agreement within a year, and to change the history of the Middle East," he said this week.
For his part, Abbas has not followed through on his threat to walk out on the proceedings.
Eighty-seven U.S. senators, meanwhile, sent a letter to Obama, urging him to "continue to emphasize to Israeli and Palestinian leaders that direct talks, while difficult, provide the best hope of reaching a meaningful and lasting peace agreement."
Let's hope Abbas heeds the call.
For the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, he would be foolish to walk away.