Little room for optimism about Mideast peace

With the collapse of the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks this month, the Obama administration may be facing the end of the road for the diplomatic process it set in motion on taking office two years ago. Though U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to restart indirect negotiations, as things stand now the emergence of a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians live side by side in peace is looking increasingly unlikely.

The initial American strategy, perhaps unwisely, relied too much on pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction on the West Bank in order to lure Palestinian negotiators to the table. Mr. Netanyahu eventually agreed to a 10-month partial moratorium on building, but then Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas inexplicably waited until the last minute before entering face-to-face talks. The parties met only three times before the freeze expired in September, after which Mr. Abbas walked out saying there was nothing to discuss so long as Israel continued to build on lands the Palestinians want for their own state.

At that point Secretary Clinton, desperate to keep the talks going, tried to cobble together an arrangement by which America would offer Israel F-35 stealth fighter jets and other military and economic goodies in exchange for extending the construction ban another three months. The offer, which would have cost U.S. taxpayers billions, was a last-ditch effort to salvage a process that clearly was going nowhere. But when Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet summarily rejected that proposal, the U.S. was suddenly left with no freeze, no negotiations and no prospect for a peace deal in sight.

Secretary Clinton has repeatedly urged Israel and the Palestinians to summon the courage to make the tough decisions required for peace. But both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas apparently have calculated that the risks of alienating their respective power bases outweigh those of tolerating the status quo. Mr. Netanyahu worries his right-wing governing coalition might fall apart if he is seen as making too many concessions to Palestinian demands. Mr. Abbas is leery of offering any peace proposal to his deeply-divided community that could spark a civil war between his Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, and the radical Hamas movement that rules Gaza.

The U.S. says it will keep talking to both sides in hopes of finding a formula to resume face-to-face negotiations, but it's hard to see how more indirect talks are anything more than a recipe for doing nothing. In any case Israel is continuing to expand settlements at a rate that will soon render the whole issue moot, because eventually there won't be enough land left to create a viable Palestinian state. Meanwhile, several nations took the collapse of the U.S.-led talks as a prompt to formally recognize Palestinian statehood, a move that has served only to make Israel dig in its heels.

Events are moving inexorably toward a de facto one-state solution in which West Bank Palestinians are reduced to second-class citizenship under permanent Israeli military occupation and the international community unites in condemnation of the Jewish state. That's hardly an outcome the U.S. can welcome, but the parties have set themselves on a course at odds with their own best interests — a course over which American diplomacy now appears to have little leverage. Unless there is some drastic change in direction, at some point the risk of renewed violence will rise exponentially, threatening a wider war while leaving future Palestinian and Israeli negotiators with nothing to talk about at all.

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