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Published: Friday, 10/15/2010

Land for peace

SIGNS in the Middle East indicate that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are still alive, if not well.

There is every reason for the United States to pursue the effort with vigor, given the importance of the success of the talks devised by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to end the conflict within a year.

Since Mr. Obama kicked off the process in Washington last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have met three times. The meetings came to a halt when the moratorium that Mr. Netanyahu had declared on new construction by Israeli settlers in the West Bank expired Sept. 26.

Land there is one of the major items on the talks' agenda. Who gets it and what exchanges for other land will occur have been generally agreed upon in past negotiations, but the subject remains sensitive.

Since Sept. 26, settlers have begun building at least 298 new units in some 18 settlements, according to the Israeli press. Mr. Abbas said he cannot continue the talks while Israelis continue to build on the land.

Last weekend, there was concern that Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Libya would withdraw their support of the talks and tell Mr. Abbas to abandon them. They did not, however, choosing instead to give the United States a month to bring Israel around on restoring the moratorium at least temporarily.

The issue of extending the moratorium is a bone of contention on the Israeli political scene. Some Israelis consider it a small matter that should not be allowed to stand in the way of achieving a comprehensive agreement on a two-state settlement.

Israel is asking the United States to pay a material and political price to extend the construction moratorium, in effect permitting Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas to consider the "land for peace" question without the new-construction issue confounding it.

Mr. Netanyahu could pay the political price in Israel and extend the moratorium. How much Washington wants to pay as an incentive is for Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton to decide.

In the end, for all sides, peace in the Middle East is worth a lot.

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