GEORGE Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader and architect of Northern Ireland peace, resigned last week as President Obama's Middle East negotiator.
He dropped his bombshell just days before this week's Washington visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He may have chosen to quit before the Netanyahu visit to finger the Israeli leader as the roadblock to agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. Obama launched a major effort to achieve an accord last September, giving the sides a year to reach agreement on a two-state settlement. Negotiations fell apart when Israel refused to stop construction of settlements in the West Bank, an important segment of Palestine, causing the Palestinians to refuse to talk.
Mr. Mitchell felt frustrated by Mr. Obama's unwillingness to press the Israelis on the construction issue. Now Mr. Netanyahu is coming to Washington with what he calls a new peace proposal, but which contains a number of elements the Palestinians cannot accept, such as a refusal to negotiate with a Palestinian administration that includes Hamas, one of the two key Palestinian parties.
One of the previous obstacles to negotiation on the Palestinian side was a sharp division between rival Palestinian factions: Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. They agreed last month to shelve their differences and face the Israelis in unity. Instead of welcoming the development, Israel attacked it and withheld $100 million in tax revenues collected on the Palestinians' behalf, relinquishing it only Monday.
Israel is feeling pressure as various Middle East nations experience the drive toward democracy. On Sunday, the day Palestinians commemorate their expulsion from Palestine as Israel was created in 1948, protesters tried to penetrate Israel's borders. At least a dozen people were killed by the Israelis.
While Mr. Netanyahu will try to win U.S. support for or at least tolerance of Israel's resistance to negotiate a settlement, he must not be allowed to steer America off its pursuit of Middle East peace.
Mr. Mitchell's resignation illustrates the difficulty for America in presiding over an effort to reach agreement. But even now, there is no good reason to abandon it.
Mr. Obama was right to launch the quest, it has not run its initial one-year course, and there is every reason to maintain it as a valid attempt to reach a lasting peace that guarantees Israel's security and meets the Palestinians' objectives in that troubled part of the world.