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American envoy George Mitchell is in the region for his latest round of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah in an effort to renew diplomatic negotiations. Just prior to his visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would not institute a construction freeze in East Jerusalem, and will continue building in the city as each of his predecessors has done since 1967. As such, Netanyahu rejected the Palestinian demand, which received American backing, for a cessation to all settlement activity in East Jerusalem as a precondition for the renewal of negotiations.

In exchange for a postponement on discussions over Jerusalem, Netanyahu offered gestures to the Palestinians, expressing a willingness to agree to an interim deal which would provide for a Palestinian state with provisional borders in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority rebuffed Netanyahu's proposal while insisting that talks focus on all the core issues. If the diplomatic process does not produce an agreement, the Palestinians are threatening to unilaterally declare independence next summer. The White House, meanwhile, has signaled its desire to ease the tensions in its relations with Netanyahu. To that end, it has transmitted conciliatory messages to Israel.

Notwithstanding the importance of Netanyahu's efforts to end the crisis with the U.S. administration and his willingness to promote a limited diplomatic process, it appears that the premier is still preoccupied with trading blame with the Palestinian leadership rather than preparing for genuine talks. The steps taken by the government thus far, all of them the result of American pressure, are apparently being used as pretexts aimed at perpetuating the status quo in the territories, rather than part of an effort to promote the "two-state solution." It appears that Netanyahu views the diplomatic process as an Israeli gesture toward the Americans, and not as an attempt at compromise with the Palestinians.

The time has come for the government to stop procrastinating, trading accusations with the PA and offering excuses. It must present a diplomatic initiative that will advance a peace agreement with the Palestinians. This would enable the government to rally public support and improve Israel's international standing, and embark on the vital project of partitioning the land and establishing an independent Palestine. Netanyahu's claim that any Israeli offer will invariably be met with Palestinian refusal is unconvincing, and certainly does not justify the continued stalemate.

Rather than continuing with another fruitless round of symbolic Israeli steps, disagreement with the U.S., American pressure for further steps and more of the same, Netanyahu needs to take the initiative, even if it necessitates dismantling his rightist coalition and bringing Kadima into the government.