Freezes and ultimatums

Freezes and ultimatums

Few things illustrate the frustrations over Middle East diplomacy as much as this week’s stalemate over Israel’s settlement moratorium and the Palestinians’ threats to bolt the talks unless the temporary freeze was extended.

It was a tactical error, if not a character flaw, for Mahmoud Abbas to delay direct talks for nearly nine months, and then agree to sit down only when the freeze was about to expire. One Mideast analyst called it his “Woody Allen” move, quoting the comedian’s line that “90 percent of life is just showing up.” Abbas suggested that by just showing up, even at so late an hour, he deserved the Israeli concession.

On the other hand, one could appreciate the Palestinians’ concern about the renewed settlement building. If the entire process is predicated on two states and the withdrawal of Israeli settlements in many parts of the West Bank (although not all — pragmatists agree that the large Jewish population centers will remain as part of a deal), then renewed construction further complicates an enormous challenge.

The Obama administration showed admirable restraint in expressing its clear preference for an extension of the freeze, while refraining from harsh public words for Prime Minister Netanyahu. Administration officials must have appreciated the pressure Netanyahu was under from within his own government, and gave him the room he needed to hold onto his coalition. Besides, new construction in the West Bank has been largely symbolic. By Tuesday, it appeared the talks still had life: The Palestinians must sense that they have no choice but to keep talking, while Israel is not interested in courting more international condemnation.

But these kinds of diplomatic thrusts and parries can go on only so long. At some point, Israel will be faced with real and difficult choices about the settlements. The Palestinians must get serious and show that they are also willing to make concessions. Only then will Israel be willing to consider the kinds of sacrifices that are necessary for peace.

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