Hope for a negotiated peace agreement in the Middle East hangs by the thinnest of threads. Israel’s 10-month freeze on the building of new settlements in the West Bank expired at midnight on Sept. 26 despite international pressure to extend the moratorium. Palestinian leaders have not pulled out of talks yet, as they threatened to do, but they may be in a politically untenable position. Even seasoned observers of the Middle East cannot help but feel frustrated by what is beginning to look like yet another missed opportunity.
The September deadline hung heavy in the air from the beginning of the U.S.-led talks. The hope that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was politically powerful enough to convince his more conservative coalition to extend the moratorium turned out to be mere wishful thinking. Shortly after the midnight deadline, Mr. Netanyahu pleaded with his partner in the talks, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, to continue with negotiations, but it is difficult to see how Abbas can move forward without any concessions from the Israelis.
So the United States and the other members of the so-called quartet working for peace—the United Nations, the European Union and the Russian Federation—are left, once again, to wait. As we go to press, President Abbas is planning to meet with Arab leaders to decide on a plan of action. We hope that he is willing to continue negotiations; but without any breakthrough on the question of settlements, the chances for an agreement seem slim. Further complicating matters is the contention by the Israeli pacifist group Peace Now that construction slowed but did not freeze completely during the moratorium.
What makes the current stalemate especially vexing is that both sides know what is required to reach peace: a return to pre-1967 borders, land swaps, the sharing of Jerusalem, recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbors and an agreed remedy to the refugee question. Preventing progress now are the radical elements on both sides, notably Jewish settlers on the West Bank, whose theological fervor for building on the “promised land” shows no signs of fading. If anything, the settler movement has become even more influential in Israeli politics, forcing Mr. Netanyahu’s Likkud party farther to the right.
The prime minister won praise from the settlers’ supporters for staying true to his word and not extending the moratorium. The 10-month window was meant to facilitate talks with the Palestinians, but Palestinian leaders did not agree to engage in negotiations until almost nine months into the moratorium. Still, Mr. Abbas and his partners must now wonder whether a final peace is possible, given that Israel is unwilling to budge on this crucial issue. There are already nearly 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, and Peace Now warns that number could quickly escalate if construction is left unchecked.
When President Obama invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to talks, it seemed possible that Mr. Netanyahu could, like President Nixon, defy his own party and make peace with a longtime enemy. The hawkish Netanyahu is an unlikely peacemaker, but there were reasons for modest hope. He endorsed a two-state solution in June 2009, though with conditions, and implemented the settlement freeze the following November.
These hopes are now all but dashed. If Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot convince his coalition partners to end settlement construction, there is very little chance that anyone can. So what is to be done? The current path is untenable. Within a generation Arabs could constitute a majority in Greater Israel (Israel, West Bank and Gaza); their subjugation is beginning more and more to look like a system of apartheid. Israel needs to be reminded that the alternatives to a two-state solution are few and unattractive. A single state, for example, with equal rights for all citizens, would be the death knell for the Jewish state as it now exists. Another plan, proposed by the well-respected prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salaam Fayyad, would establish a Palestinian state by August 2011, regardless of the status of peace negotiations.
Whether the Palestinian Authority has the resources to build a state is an open question; Israel remains in control of much of the infrastructure in the region. What is clear is that at least one player in these talks has yet to exercise its full authority in the cause of peace. With its annual $3 billion in direct aid to Israel, the United States remains uniquely capable of applying the pressure needed to bring settlement construction to a halt. If the current peace talks fail, American political leaders will surely deserve some of the blame.