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Israelis and Palestinians are ready to begin talking -- sort of

Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A20

INDIRECT TALKS between Israelis and Palestinians appear finally set to begin, after a two-month delay that showed the Obama administration's diplomacy at its worst. The trouble started with an errant announcement by Israel of new housing construction in East Jerusalem; President Obama chose to escalate what could have been a blip into a public quarrel, in the apparent hope of extracting a series of concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The tactic failed. The "proximity" talks, with former senator George J. Mitchell as a go-between, are starting up on pretty much the same terms established two months ago. Mr. Netanyahu predictably refused Mr. Obama's demand for a freeze on building in East Jerusalem -- but, as before, Israel has promised to avoid provocative actions. Mr. Mitchell managed to establish that the discussions will cover all of the fundamental issues involved in creating a Palestinian state, but Israel has made it clear that substantive progress cannot take place until the two sides begin talking to each other directly.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemingly wants to postpone that day as long as possible. He has insisted on indirect talks even though he has participated in direct negotiations with Israeli leaders for two decades; in 2008, he refused to take up a far-reaching peace offer from former prime minister Ehud Olmert. The Palestinian leader now appears to be counting on the Obama administration to do his negotiating. Seconding some of the president's advisers, he recently called on the United States to put forward its own solution. That could mean he is ready to passively accept some of the terms that would likely be part of any U.S. plan, such as the permanent exclusion of Palestinian refugees from Israel. But Mr. Abbas no doubt anticipates that American intervention would lead to more clashes with Mr. Netanyahu's government, which Palestinians can watch from the sidelines.

It's true that Mr. Netanyahu's current right-wing coalition is unlikely to accept some of the terms that would be necessary for peace, such as Palestinian sovereignty over part of Jerusalem. Even his current defense minister says Mr. Netanyahu needs to form a more centrist government. But the Obama administration should recognize that blunt pressure on Israel won't produce a Middle East deal. Instead, the administration needs to methodically press both sides to negotiate seriously. Steps toward peace in the Middle East have always begun with initiatives by Israelis and Arabs. Mr. Obama himself recently quoted former secretary of state James A. Baker III's maxim that "we can't want it more than they do." He would be wise to be guided by those words.

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