U.S. needs more than short-term dealmaking to aid Mideast talks

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 7:38 PM

PERSISTENCE IN the face of setbacks is a necessity in Middle East peace diplomacy. But the Obama administration's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks are less evocative of true grit than of desperate improvisation. According to reports in the Israeli press, the administration has now offered the government of Binyamin Netanyahu a gold-plated menu of incentives, including $3 billion worth of F-35 warplanes, in exchange for a 90-day renewal of a partial moratorium on West Bank settlement construction. Building in Jerusalem, where more than 1,000 new units were recently announced, would be exempted, and the administration would pledge not to ask for any more extensions. It would also promise to oppose any effort by Palestinians to take their quest for statehood to the United Nations.

We have no objection to the reported incentives. Despite their cost, the F-35s will help preserve Israel's margin of security at a time when Iran's nuclear program remains unchecked. The question, however, is whether the administration's initiative is attached to a coherent strategy. Having largely created the impasse over settlements with pointless demands that Israel cease all building, President Obama will now pay dearly to take the issue off the table - using coin that should have been used to obtain needed Israeli concessions on the actual terms of Palestinian statehood.

Administration officials appear to hope that in 90 days the territory of the new state can be mostly delineated, rendering the settlement issue moot - or that the talks will at least gain enough momentum that neither side will wish to break them off. The odds are not in favor of either development. Past negotiations have revealed some big differences between the two sides on territory, and they are unlikely to be settled without trade-offs on other core issues, such as the disposition of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. As for momentum, the administration hoped that elusive force would carry the process past the end of the last settlement moratorium in September. It didn't.

Administration envoys have spent scores of hours in private talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders; it could be that they have detected the potential for rapid progress. We hope that is the explanation for the 90-day initiative. For now, in public, it looks as though it will be difficult just to get Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet and the Palestinian leadership to accept the deal - and that the administration does not have a plan for Day 91. True, Middle East peacemaking requires fortitude, but it's also necessary to think more than one move ahead.


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