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Squandering the Moment

NYT Editorial


Unless something happens soon, Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs may squander the best chance for Middle East peace in nearly a decade. President Obama is committed to serious negotiations and, for now, there is a lull in regional violence. But all of the region’s major players are refusing to do what is needed to keep their own people safe and move the peace process forward.

Mr. Obama has called on the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to freeze all settlement construction as a way to demonstrate his government’s commitment to trading land for peace.
Mr. Netanyahu, who accepted the idea of a two-state solution only grudgingly, has hinted that he might agree to a temporary freeze. In the meantime, his government has approved 455 new permits for construction in the West Bank and said that work on 2,500 units now in progress must also be completed.
That may play well in Israeli polls, but it has given Arab leaders a powerful excuse to do nothing.
Mr. Obama has been urging Arab states to demonstrate their own commitment to a peace deal by signaling a greater acceptance of Israel — by granting overflight rights for Israeli commercial planes or opening consular or trade offices in Israel.
Instead of championing the idea, the United States’ closest regional allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are refusing to make any of their own gestures and are actively discouraging other Arab states from acting. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has refused to agree to a three-way meeting with Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu in New York later this month unless Israel agrees to a complete freeze.
Is there any way out of this stalemate?
The White House’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is back in the region this week trying to talk sense to all sides. He needs to tell them that Mr. Obama’s patience is not unlimited and that the lull in violence is almost certainly temporary.
He must remind the Egyptians and the Saudis, who are constantly looking over their shoulders at Iran, that a peace deal is the best way to check extremism and Tehran’s power. And the Gulf states, which insist that they are less mired in ancient hatreds, must be urged to step out of the shadow of Riyadh and Cairo and do what they already know is necessary.
President Obama needs to prod Mr. Netanyahu toward bolder action by making a direct — and better — case to a skeptical Israeli public on why a settlements freeze and reviving peace talks is in its interest.
Mr. Obama is still hoping to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together at the United Nations this month to announce the resumption of peace talks. To pull that off, he is going to have to press all of the region’s leaders a lot harder.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Mitchell have already invested eight months on confidence-building and incremental diplomacy. If there is no breakthrough soon, they may have to place their own deal on the table.