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Published: Wednesday, 1/13/2010

Mideast morass

THE latest developments in the Middle East are discouraging to Americans who believe in the need for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

On the Palestinian side, relations between the rival political groups, Fatah, in the West Bank, and Hamas, whose stronghold is Gaza, seem to be improving. Still, the division between them leaves the Palestinians without a coherent negotiating position to bring to the table.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made conciliatory statements about his government's intention to continue to build and to support settlers in the West Bank. But actions on Israel's part make fruitful negotiations difficult to achieve. The West Bank, which now holds 300,000 Israeli settlers, is the largest piece of the land that would serve as the Palestinian state under a two-state peace plan.

President Obama has given former Sen. George J. Mitchell, the godfather of the 1998 Northern Ireland accord, the task of trying to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to the table. The Israelis have ripped into Mr. Mitchell for saying that withholding U.S. loan guarantees could be a way to encourage them to resume negotiations with the Palestinians. He made it clear that he prefers dialogue to economic sanctions, but the United States has threatened Israel twice before with suspending the guarantees, a supplement to the $3 billion a year America provides Israel.

Other developments among Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinians have dimmed prospects for constructive talks. Israel has announced its intention to build miles of walls on the border of Egypt, Gaza, and Israel, southward from the Rafah crossing and north from the Israeli resort of Eilat, a two-year project. Rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel; the Israelis have carried out air strikes in Gaza, sometimes a prelude to hotter warfare. Who knows who fired first?

On the international front, Israel has run into trouble in the United Kingdom. A visit by former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the opposition Kadima party, was canceled because a British court issued an arrest warrant for her for war crimes. A senior Israeli military delegation canceled a visit to the U.K. because the British couldn't guarantee that its members would not be arrested for war crimes while there.

All of this sparring must end, with an acceptance by both sides of Mr. Mitchell's call to begin serious negotiations. Mr. Obama must reinforce his envoy's peacemaking effort with his own strong statement on the need to move toward resolving this dangerous, 62-year-old conflict.

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