The White House was careful to lower expectations before Tuesday's meeting in New York between U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. And indeed, as was to be expected, the meeting did not narrow the gaps between the parties on core issues; it did not even produce an understanding on a settlement freeze. Nine months after Obama appointed George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, the U.S. administration cannot point to any real progress toward an agreement on the Palestinian track. The Syrian and Lebanese tracks are similarly at a pre negotiations stage.
It is regrettable that so much time was wasted on the effort to create an equation under which settlement activity would be frozen in exchange for a thaw in Arab states' relations with Israel. Foot-dragging in the political process plays into the hands of the region's extremists. America's failure to restart the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue strengthens doubts about diplomacy's utility and boosts the temptation to replace it with violence. Though he did so belatedly, Obama was wise to drop his preoccupation with settlements and El Al flights over Saudi Arabia - what are known as confidence-building steps - and instead launch an effort to get negotiations going on a final-status agreement.
It is to be hoped that the triumphal crowing from Netanyahu's camp after the summit does not mean the prime minister interprets Obama's decision to pull back from his demand for a total settlement freeze as a carte blanche for construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Provoking our Palestinian peace partner cannot be reconciled with a commitment to a two states for two peoples solution. Israel also has no interest in making Obama look like a weak leader who cannot impose his will on a small, friendly state. The United States holds the key to restraining the Iranian nuclear threat, and is also Israel's bulwark against imposed political solutions.
Israel should be thankful that Obama took time off from his many burdensome domestic concerns to demonstrate to the world that he is personally committed to advancing moves aimed at ending the Middle East dispute. The New York summit was an important step, but by no means sufficient. Now is the time to move forward from mere handshakes to real action.
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