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Burden of Proof

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must decide whether to bow to American pressure and accept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's invitation to begin high-level discussions.

The Arab League resolution on Thursday supporting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was an important step on the path to renew talks to establish a Palestinian state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas now must decide whether to bow to American pressure and accept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's invitation to begin high-level discussions.

It is incumbent upon Abbas to answer in the affirmative because there is no benefit - neither for the peace process nor for the Palestinians - in more pointless delays that perpetuate the intolerable situation in the territories. U.S. President Barack Obama's backing of direct talks removes the possibility that the administration will impose its own two-state solution on Netanyahu before the two parties begin negotiations. Under these circumstances, Abbas must examine Netanyahu's statements in which he professes a desire for a final-status deal.

Netanyahu, who waged a diplomatic campaign to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table, persuaded the United States, the Europeans, Egypt and Jordan to give him a chance and support him. But the goal is not to hold talks, but to strike a deal. Netanyahu will be expected to prove that his speeches touting peace and his calls for expedited negotiations are not just deceptions designed to buy time while portraying the Palestinians as the intractable side. To that end, he must continue the government's construction freeze in the settlements and agree to partition the land, actions that are antithetical to the ideology on which he was reared and the platform of the rightist coalition he leads.

Since his return to office, the prime minister has avoided clashes and key decisions. If he seriously works to promote the two-state solution, he will soon have to meet his base constituency head-on. Netanyahu's remarks to the Spanish foreign minister whereby extending the settlement freeze beyond September 26 "is impossible from a political standpoint" and would lead to the collapse of his coalition do not bode well. If Netanyahu is afraid of the settlers and their supporters, or his ministers Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman, how can he make the compromises and concessions necessary in negotiations with the Palestinians?

Netanyahu likes to say he did not return to power just to sit in his chair but to make fateful decisions that will shape Israel's future, including the advancement of an agreement with the Palestinians. The burden of proof now rests with him. The Arab League's decision to support direct talks was aimed at the Palestinian president, but the prime minister's moment of truth is also approaching.