The New York Times (Editorial)
October 29, 2010 - 12:00am

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been suspended for four weeks, about as long as they were on. The more protracted the impasse, the harder it will be for the parties to get back to the negotiating table. More delay only plays into the hands of extremists.

Both sides are at fault. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has refused President Obama’s request to extend a moratorium on construction in the Jewish settlements for a modest 60 days. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has refused to negotiate until building in the settlements stops.

We think the burden is on Mr. Netanyahu to get things moving again. The settlements are illegal under international law, and resuming the moratorium, which expired on Sept. 26, will in no way harm Israel’s national interest. But Mr. Abbas also has to recognize that the issue has become a distraction from the main goal of a broader peace deal. The two leaders must not squander this chance.

Back at the table, their first order of business can be setting the borders of the new Palestinian state. Land swaps were always going to be part of a peace deal, and there is little mystery about what the final map would look like. Once the borders are drawn, it will be clear which West Bank settlements would belong to Israel, and Israel can then resume building in those places.

President Obama made a very generous — too generous, we believe — offer to Israel, to get Mr. Netanyahu to extend the moratorium. It included additional security guarantees and more fighter planes, missile defense, satellites. Mr. Netanyahu still refused, insisting that the hard-line members of his coalition would never go along. He then added to the controversy by proposing that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Many Israelis worry that he is putting too many obstacles in the way of a deal and raising unnecessary questions about Israel’s already accepted identity.

The Palestinians say his demand is intended to negate their insistence on a right of return for Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war — a core peace issue along with borders, security and Jerusalem — before any negotiation takes place. Like borders, there is a compromise to be had on the refugee issue, involving compensation and a limited number of Palestinian returnees. Prejudging it right now is too much.

Palestinians are grasping for another route. The current favorite: asking the United Nations to declare their independent state. That would dangerously fuel tensions. Israeli soldiers would still be in the West Bank and so would 120 Jewish settlements with 500,000 settlers. Palestinians would not have free access to Jerusalem. Seeking a United Nations declaration would alienate Washington and other diplomatic players.

We agree with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She told the American Task Force on Palestine, an advocacy group that supports peace: “There is no substitute for face-to-face discussion and, ultimately, for an agreement that leads to a just and lasting peace.”

Enough game-playing. Mr. Netanyahu should accept Mr. Obama’s offer and be ready to form a new governing coalition if some current members bolt. Arab states need to do more to nudge Mr. Abbas back to the table and give him the political support he will need to stay there.

Israelis might dismiss the Palestinian threats to go to the United Nations as theatrics. Today they might be. But the Israelis cannot bet on the infinite patience of the Palestinian people — or the international community.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017