Editorial: Door Ajar or Closed

For the umpteenth time, the questionably-named “Mideast Peace Process” is at an impasse, despite the heroic efforts of the Obama Administration to keep the effort on life support. Veteran diplomats and other Middle East observers have all but given up on the possibility that a two-state solution can ever be achieved, let alone within the ambitious one-year deadline set by Washington.

At this writing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed with Washington to promote a 90-day renewal of a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, not including Jerusalem. Hopes had been raised that the 90-day renewal of the construction freeze would bring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table.

But those hopes were set back over the weekend after Abbas met in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Isabel Kershner of the New York Times reports that after the meeting, “Mr. Abbas said that he had received no official American proposal regarding the peace process, but that for negotiations to take place, ‘there has to be a complete halt in settlements in al the Palestinian lands, first and foremost in Jerusalem.’ “

The current impasse is largely due to the two corners into which Netanyahu and Abbas have allowed themselves to be painted on the highly sensitive settlements issue. Time and time again, just when hopes have been raised for a resumption of serious Israeli-Palestinian talks, there have been ill-timed announcements of the construction of additional housing units in the West Bank, including Jerusalem.

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Last week in St. Louis, Kenneth Jacobson, Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, told a group of local Jewish leaders that it was perhaps a mistake for President Barack Obama to have moved the issue of the Jewish settlements to the front burner by referring to the issue in his speech at Cairo University, in which he was reaching out to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

For his part, Abbas cannot be seen by the more radical elements of his Fatah faction in the West Bank, let alone the absolute Hamas rejectionists who control the Gaza Strip, as being more flexible than the United States has been on the issue of the settlements.

The difference, however, is that Netanyahu has at least been publicly willing to push back on the right wing of his coalition by overtly seeking a freeze extension.  Abbas, on the other hand, has acted as though any resumption of talks would be perceived as conciliatory and damaging to his leadership. This is unfortunate and wrongheaded, as evidenced by some polls that show a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians favoring a two-state solution. This  bilateral support for peace was echoed by veteran journalist Martin Fletcher when he spoke at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival last week.

Netanyahu still has to gain formal approval of his ruling coalition for the 90-day freeze, and he has a shot to obtain that approval in view of the recent U.S. sweetened offer on critically needed fighter jets and key diplomatic support. Regrettably, hardline elements in his Cabinet, especially the Foreign Ministry headed by Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman and elements of the Interior Ministry, may try yet again to scuttle the whole process with aggressive housing developments in Jerusalem, knowing that such a move would make it next to impossible for Abbas to support rejoining the talks.

On the Palestinian side, both Ethan Bronner of the New York Times and Jacobson point out the very hopeful progress being made on safety and security in the West Bank by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. With the help of both Israel and the United States military, Palestinian security forces have been well trained and have achieved unprecedented security and stability in the West Bank.  Yet the aggressive rhetoric of both Abbas and Fayyad, while playing to their own extreme base, tends to undercut the potential for effective peace negotiations.

We fully support the Obama administration’s efforts to get the peace talks pointing to the essential two-state solution back on track. In this week of our nation’s celebration of the Festival of Thanksgiving, such a development would be something for which to be very Thankful.