MARCH 5, 2014
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
In Washington this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel sounded two different notes about peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which are nearing a critical juncture. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,  the pro-Israel lobby, he enthusiastically advocated a peace agreement as a means to improve Israel's ties with its Arab neighbors and "catapult the region forward" on issues like health, energy and education.
But at other moments, a more familiar skepticism was apparent. He demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state with "no excuses, no delays." In response, a senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath,  accused Mr. Netanyahu of putting an end to peace talks because Palestinians have already rejected that designation. (Palestinians recognize Israel as a state, but not as a Jewish state because they believe that that would undercut the rights of Palestinian refugees.) And, on Monday, at the White House, Mr. Netanyahu asserted that while Israel has worked hard to advance peace, the Palestinians have not.
How much of this is posturing before the two sides face tough choices in their negotiations is unknown. But as President Obama noted in an interview  with Bloomberg View, time is running out, and not just because the Americans will soon release a set of principles that are to serve as a framework for further talks on a final peace deal. Mr. Netanyahu and the Palestinians will have to decide whether to move forward on the basis of those principles, negotiated over months with the mediation of Secretary of State John Kerry, or reject them.
In remarkably blunt comments, Mr. Obama said that he had not heard a persuasive case for how Israel survives both as a democracy and a Jewish state absent a negotiated two-state solution, since in Israel and the West Bank "there are going to be more Palestinians, not fewer Palestinians, as time goes on." He also warned that given Israel's aggressive settlement construction -- 2,534 housing units  were begun in 2013 compared with 1,133 the previous year -- Palestinians may soon decide that a contiguous state is impossible and America's ability to help manage the consequences will be limited. Meanwhile, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is committed to nonviolence, is aging; no one knows who will succeed him. These are the hard facts that need to be broadcast widely.
Negotiators have largely kept silent on details of the talks. But there are fears that the principles might tilt toward Israel, which would mean the final negotiations simply won't get off the ground. For instance, there was a troubling report in the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds  that said one proposal would give Palestinians just the neighborhood of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem as their capital. The Palestinians have long claimed East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as their capital in a peace deal.
The framework  is expected to call for an end to the conflict and all claims, following a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (based on the 1967 lines), with extensive new measures like drones and sensors in the Jordan Valley to address Israel's security concerns. Israel will retain certain settlement blocs and the Palestinians will be compensated with Israeli territory.
President Obama is scheduled to meet with Mr. Abbas at the White House on March 17 and then go to Saudi Arabia, an important player in rallying Arab support for Mr. Abbas and the peace effort. In his Aipac speech, Mr. Netanyahu declared, "I'm prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors." But, really, what other just and durable choice does he have? What is his long-term answer for Israel, if not a two-state solution?