The Financial Times

We Cannot Leave Mideast Talks in the Bazaar

It seems serious Israeli-Palestinian talks have not started after all. Even seven and a half hours of negotiation on November 11 between Hillary Clinton, United States secretary of state, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, could produce no breakthrough, especially on the thorny issue of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. New housing tenders announced since then have only deepened the mistrust. But these weaknesses were apparent from the start. If the talks are to stand any chance of success, the United States must now quickly refashion its approach.

Given that Israel's settlement moratorium was due to expire 24 days after negotiations began, an impasse loomed from day one. Yet the Obama administration responded by entering into the process as if in a Middle Eastern bazaar. After the settlement freeze expired in late September, the Israelis and Palestinians did not talk to each other but instead began to haggle with the United States. They did not discuss peace, but rather the gifts and benefits that would induce them to resume talking about peace.

Any negotiating process requires a beginning and an end. In this case there is an urgent need for an agreed framework that can tackle the final status of borders, security arrangements, refugees and Jerusalem. The current breakdown illustrates the perils of leaving the station without such a framework. Now the United States must return to basic principles, and offer a plan of its own on these issues.

By not offering such a plan, the United States missed an opportunity to take the initiative as Israel's partial settlement moratorium expired. Instead, it has offered Mr Netanyahu an unprecedented package of security assistance, financial aid and political incentives to keep the parties at the table. Israel's premier is still holding out for a U.S. letter detailing the latest package in order to win over his seven-man security cabinet. However, this indicates that trust is also wearing thin in relations between Israel and its U.S. ally. The United States has also been negotiating benefits with the Palestinians, to entice them to return to the table even as settlement construction continued in the background.

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