The New York Times (Editorial)
March 9, 2010 - 1:00am

THE OBAMA administration appears near to a diplomatic achievement it expected long ago: the relaunch of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It will be a modest start -- not a big conference or a convocation to Camp David but "proximity talks," in which envoy George J. Mitchell will shuttle between the two camps. This is, in one sense, a step backward for Israeli-Palestinian relations, since the two sides have been talking directly to each other, off and on, since 1991. But Mr. Mitchell says he hopes his brokering will quickly lead to direct talks, and the administration believes that even this stunted process will be better than none at all.

We hope that proves to be the case -- but there is considerable cause for concern about this iteration of the seemingly endless Middle East "peace process." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has resisted direct negotiations partly out of a conviction that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is intransigent. And Mr. Netanyahu regularly offers evidence that this is so. He recently appeared to rule out Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley, which previous Israeli governments have conceded to a future Palestinian state, and he allowed new Jewish settlement construction to proceed in the West Bank despite the "freeze" he announced several months ago. Mr. Abbas, for his part, already rejected a far-reaching peace offer from Mr. Netanyahu's predecessor.

Mr. Mitchell sensibly has explored a strategy of beginning the talks with security matters -- an issue where Israeli-Palestinian cooperation has been improving -- and discussion of the borders of a future state. Agreement on the latter would also resolve the settlement question. Mr. Netanyahu has been reluctant to discuss borders independently of other issues. But aiming for a partial and pragmatic agreement on territory makes more sense, for now, than trying to reach a final settlement.

President Obama and Mr. Mitchell erred last year by raising expectations that such a breakthrough could be achieved relatively quickly. Even now Arab leaders, who endorsed the new process last week, may hold lingering hopes that the U.S. president will impose a solution. Yet as the new administration discovered in 2009, there are limits to how far the United States can push Middle East diplomacy without genuine investment from the two sides. There are also risks: A Palestinian nation-building project is making progress in the West Bank, and it could be endangered by another diplomatic failure.

On the whole it is better to have Israelis and Palestinians talking than not. But Mr. Mitchell must aim for a quick transition to direct negotiations -- and he should avoid raising expectations about what they can accomplish.


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