After a prolonged obstacle course, fraught with reports of disputes and crises, U.S. envoy George Mitchell has succeeded in fulfilling his first mission: convening a meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Barack Obama tomorrow in New York.
True to the tradition of lowering expectations, the White House announced the purpose of the meeting between the three leaders will be to "lay the groundwork for renewed negotiations" on Middle East peace.
The summit would end a six-month freeze in dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, since Netanyahu's return to power. It will surely lead to renewed negotiations on a permanent settlement, this time with active U.S. mediation. The significance of the meeting notwithstanding, the leaders' moment of trial still lies ahead.
Netanyahu's primary effort so far has been to maintain internal support and his coalition's stability, while softening Obama's demand for a total freeze on construction in the settlements. Netanyahu's consent to imposing a nine-month freeze on new building permits for West Bank settlers was diluted by his decision to build hundreds of new apartments, continue building public structures and to impose no limits on Jews moving to East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu's formula pacified the uproar within Likud, but reinforced the suspicion he is being dragged into talks just to appease Obama and is not genuinely prepared to compromise.
On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Netanyahu called on Abbas to "show courage" and explain to his people that the conflict must end, and with it Palestinian claims on Israel. The prime minister must demand the same of himself. He, too, must show courage and tell his people, his party and his political partners that a peace agreement on the basis of dividing the land into two countries is distinctly in Israel's interest, and that securing that interest would require Israel to pull back from most of the territory it occupied in 1967 and to dismantle most settlements.
Netanyahu's support for a demilitarized Palestinian state was an important move, but was not enough. As long as he makes demands of the other side, while being ambiguous about his own level of flexibility and commitment to opinions he has voiced in the past, he will perhaps be able to hang on to his seat, but will steer the country down a dead end.
Now it is Netanyahu's turn to show courage and achieve a breakthrough for a settlement with the Palestinians. This is his mission.
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