The New York Times (Editorial)
May 26, 2011 - 12:00am

This is the time for bold ideas to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel did not seize it. In his address to Congress, he showed — once again — that he has no serious appetite for the kind of compromises that are the only way to forge a two-state solution and guarantee both Palestinians their long-denied state and Israel’s long-term security.

President Obama showed more rhetorical initiative when he spoke, but he doesn’t appear to have a strategy for reviving negotiations. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is refusing to come back to the table and is apparently betting his people’s future on a misguided deal with Hamas and symbolic gestures.

This is more than just a wasted opportunity. Continued stalemate feeds extremism. And there is a deadline looming: Absent negotiations, Palestinians plan to ask the United Nations in September to recognize their state. The measure won’t get them what they want, and the United States will veto it when it gets to the Security Council. But the exercise will further isolate Israel and Washington.

President Obama vowed to revive the peace process but checked out when Mr. Netanyahu rejected his demand for a settlement freeze and Mr. Abbas refused to negotiate without it. Mr. Obama got back in the game last week. In a speech on the Arab Spring, he goaded allies, including Israel, to take political risks for peaceful change.

What drew the most attention was his call for negotiations on a Palestinian state based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders — with mutually agreed land swaps. The idea has been the basis of all negotiations for more than a decade, including those backed by President George W. Bush.

Mr. Netanyahu immediately insisted that Israel would never return to the “indefensible” pre-1967 boundaries. Playing to his conservative base at home, and on Capitol Hill, he ignored the second half of Mr. Obama’s statement about “mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

Pretty much everyone but the hardest liners — on both sides — assumes that in a peace deal Israel will retain many of its West Bank settlements and compensate Palestinians with other land. On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu acknowledged as much, saying that “in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”

His aides had raised hopes that Mr. Netanyahu would offer new ideas to revive talks, but there was really nothing new there. He insisted that Jerusalem “will never again be divided” and Israel’s Army would remain along the Jordan River. And while he basked in Congress’s standing ovations, Ethan Bronner reported in The Times that in Israel the trip was judged a diplomatic failure. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said Mr. Netanyahu’s “same old messages” proved the country “deserves a different leader.” Palestinians dismissed the visit and said they would focus on nonviolent protests leading to September.

So what happens now? More drift and recriminations, unless Mr. Obama comes up with a plan to get the parties into serious talks. We see no hint that he is working toward one. We are told that he has no immediate plans to appoint a new envoy to replace George Mitchell, who resigned, or to send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the region. Negotiations will become even harder once the unity government with Hamas is formed and it gets closer to September. Time is running out.


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