Another Middle East standoff

Rarely have the differences between a U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister been so prominently displayed as they were last week when Mr. Barack Obama hosted Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. Mr. Netanyahu’s visit capped a week of activity: Jordan’s King Abdullah visited a few days before and then Mr. Obama delivered a speech outlining his views of an eventual peace agreement.

To no one’s surprise, Mr. Netanyahu rejected the Obama vision and reinforced long-existing lines in the sand. Those lines correspond to the outlines of the state of Israel, and if they are not moved, no peace agreement is possible.

Mr. Obama took office two years ago, promising to make an Israel-Palestine peace agreement a priority. There were some hopes that a new president, especially one who seemed more sensitive to Muslim sensitivities, a new administration and a new commitment to negotiations could help break the deadlock that characterizes Middle East peace talks.

That promise quickly foundered on well-trod paths. Mr. Netanyahu fought hard against any concessions, a stance that was hardened by the weakness of its Palestinian partner in the West Bank, Fatah, and the growing strength of Hamas in Gaza. Both sides dug in, avoiding any movement toward compromise. Ultimately, talks were torpedoed last year when Israel refused to slow the expansion of settlements on occupied territory.

In his remarks on Wednesday last week, Mr. Obama said that Israel’s 1967 borders should be the basis for negotiations over the ultimate borders of a Palestinian state. His comments about the right for two states to exist acknowledged the Palestinian demand for statehood and sovereignty and recognized that Israel will be a Jewish state.

Explicitly, Mr. Obama called on Hamas to accept Israel’s right to exist. And in speaking of the need for both states to be secure, he endorsed a phased withdrawal of the Israeli military from occupied territories.

Mr. Netanyahu could not have been more blunt in his rejection of key pillars of the president’s thinking. Although he said he shared the vision of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the prime minister warned Mr. Obama against “a peace based on illusions.”

Apparently, those illusions include the idea of negotiating with Hamas (or the Fatah government affiliated with it by virtue of the pact the two agreed some weeks ago), returning to pre-1967 borders — “these were not the boundaries of peace. They were the boundaries of repeated wars” — or any idea of a right of return for Palestinians. “It’s not going to happen.”

There was some common ground between the two men, however. Mr. Netanyahu agreed with Mr. Obama that Hamas must accept Israel’s right to exist, although he went further than the president, telling Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he must chose between partnership with Hamas or partnership with Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu’s outrage at the idea of returning to the pre-1967 borders — “those borders are indefensible” — is no doubt sincere, but that does not make it credible. Mr. Obama spoke not of a return to those borders, but of forging a deal “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

Not only is that a reasonable position, but it has been the basis of negotiations between the two sides for over a decade. Moreover, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank that so offends Israeli hawks would be phased — over an indeterminate time period — to ensure that its security is protected.

Indeed, rather than appearing petulant and rude to his host, Mr. Netanyahu could have changed the terms of the discussion by emphasizing instead the key points on which he and Mr. Obama were in agreement.

The president’s reference to the existence of a Jewish state puts him on Mr. Netanyahu’s side on the thorny issue of the right of return. Mr. Obama’s condemnation of Hamas for failing to recognize Israel’s right to exist put the burden on it and Fatah to join the 21st century.

And throughout his remarks, Mr. Obama insisted that Israel’s security would remain the foremost consideration for the U.S. as it tried to resolve the conflict.

Mr. Netanyahu knows well that he has U.S. support and that no U.S. president will change that position. Yet he reflexively opposes any move that might suggest weakness or might cede any advantage to the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu’s mistrust and suspicion of his partners, combined with the notion that compromise is dangerous, means that any settlement must ultimately be imposed on Israel’s terms. That is a recipe for paralysis and continued conflict.

It will ensure that violence ebbs and flows as Palestinians rise up, confront the superior Israeli military machine, and a new generation of martyrs is created.

Mr. Netanyahu’s intransigence is as powerful an obstacle to peace as is the bloody obstinacy of Hamas.

Neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Hamas serves their constituents. Both will remain in a position to block any movement toward peace until both publics are exhausted by belligerence and decide to give real compromise a chance.