The National Catholic Review
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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.

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 10/14/2010 - 12:33pm
When a few years ago Israel unilaterally returned a sizeable portion of the west bank to Palestinian control, the Palestinian (Hamas) response was to move missiles closer to Israel and to launch them from the new strategic positions they had gained. Not exactly a movement toward Land for Peace.
While many believe most Palestinians desire peace with Israel, the groups in power desire the same thing that Ahmadinejad has publicly stated he desires-the extermination of the Jewish presence in the middle east. 
Israel does have difficult and dangerous choices to make. Further endangering its own security by improving the strategic positioning of those well-armed groups dedicated to its destruction is likely seen as the most dangerous choice of all.
David Murray | 10/6/2010 - 9:53am
By putting public pressure on Netanyahu to end the settlements, President Obama removed any incentive for the Palestinians to talk. If the American President was on their side on this issue (they would be encouraged to think), why negotiate on this?

Thus Obama must be held responsible for the stalement. He set up a situation where the Palestinians will (they think) have everything to gain from waiting, and nothing to gain from acting.
shirley donovan | 10/3/2010 - 2:15am
I will be 82 this month - most of my life since WWII this has been a matter of discussion - the problems between the country of Israel and the Palestinians.  Maybe if  there is not sufficient desire on both sides for resolution of this problem the US should step aside, withdraw, and simply state that we have tried to help resolve this problem and cannot - when you both have serious intentions to negotiate a solution, let us know  and until then you both have our best wishes for peace in your part of the world. I am sorry to say so but I believe both sides are playing games.  It would seem to me that the two state solution is the only solution, however, if they do not agree - both sides - then they will have to find another solution or live in the present situation.                  It is too bad there is so much sadness, violence and hatred in the world today when the economic cost could be directed instead at some of the poor conditions many people live under.  I always picture God as shaking His head in sorrow.  I speak of the God of us all no matter what religion we individually belong to.  Wars or disputes between religious groups are, of course, the worst kinds of wars because everyone believes that God is on their side.  I am not at all sure that God is taking a side in such disputes but gave us the intellect to solve these problems ourselves - what is lacking is clearly the WILL!!   
Keyran Moran | 10/2/2010 - 1:46am
In Heidelberg where I live, there is a Peace Prayer group, which meets to pray for the world but will not even use the word Israel because it is a taboo term in Germany.

This comment is almost as paralyzed as the Heidelberg biweekly retreat in the back of a book store after hours.

Israel and the Lobbies, especially in the USA, constitute the War Party. The congress and indeed the Catholic Church are easily controlled with threats.

The Catholic Church including the Jesuits have supported by its silence the killing of 410 children in Gaza...and will support the next Slaughter of the Innocents.
david power | 10/1/2010 - 7:15pm
It seems to me there is one person truly suitable to bring peace to this troubled land.
A man who can understand the Jewish way of thinking and pretend to understand that of
the Arabs.A man who is aching for his place in history and has all of the ability to do it.
Bill Clinton.If Obama were to Give him this job and carte blance he would come closer to the 
holy grail than anybody else. His experience in Ireland and failed experience in the Arafat dealings would place him in good stead.He understands the need to temper idealism with pragmatism and the saving of countless lives there could make amends for his position on abortion.
If Clinton were to work full-time on this problem I am sure that within a couple of years we 
would see real progress.
I hope Obama is aware of the seriousness of this matter and the need for resolute action.
The Palestinians are the wounded elephant in the american dining room.    
TED SCHMIDT | 10/1/2010 - 1:53pm
Gideon Levy, Israel's pre-eminent journalist was here in Toronto in September and saw no hope for negotiations with Netanyahu at the helm. They are largely photo ops to keep the US and Europe at bay. Israel continues to play the USA like a biblical harp always holding out some dismal hope that they are sincere partners for peace. They are not. They hold all the cards and can do to Palestinians what they want. This is the reason they always refuse international watchdogs with any clout like Desmond Tutu or independent UN observers. As one Palestinian told us in August, "How can you negotiate over a pizza when one side keeps eating it? " The only way the settlements will stop is by external pressure and Obama  only has political energy for the economy. He will not go to the wall on this issue and do what he should: stop funding these settlements.

Another annoying point is the proliferation of Catholic groups, potential witnesses to the ongoing oppression, who continue to embark on nostalgia-like tours to buildings, holy places etc  but miss the "living stones" of the oppressed Palestinians. As Melkite bishop Elias Chacour reminded us, this is the true Holy Land according to Jesus (Matt.25:31-46)

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