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An Important First Step

June 18, 2009
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Benjamin Netanyahu took an important and courageous first step in declaring before the world his support for a Palestinian state. Anyone who seeks peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors knows that such a state must be at the center of any final peace deal.

Although articulating the position long held by most Israelis may seem like an obvious and overdue move, Netanyahu deserves credit for crossing what one Israeli journalist termed the premier's "Rubicon."

In rejecting the more right-wing elements of his coalition, Netanyahu's reversal is reminiscent of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's transformation that led him to embark on Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

In calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu became, as another Israeli journalist put it, "a unifying premier who is trying to reduce the occupation without undermining Israeli security."

But his willingness to embrace a Palestinian state is only a first step. And it is not only he and Israel that need to take the next crucial ones.

The Palestinians must stop dithering and make meaningful overtures that prove they are serious about being partners for peace. How this can happen in such a divided Palestinian camp -- with Hamas still avowedly tied to Israel's destruction -- is far from clear. But it is at least in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' court to stop hiding behind the settlement issue and resume negotiations.

President Barack Obama, for his part, needs to tone down the rhetoric and get down to serious but quieter diplomacy. Now that the speeches have been delivered -- Obama's in Cairo earlier this month, and Netanyahu's at Bar-Ilan University on Sunday -- the real work begins.

Obama is sending his special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, to meet with Netanyahu next week in Paris. Mitchell, in a news conference Tuesday, said that, despite difficulties, he is hopeful that the two sides will resume negotiations within a matter of weeks.

Netanyahu, having taken this critical step, has dispatched his controversial foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to Washington. His meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and congressional leaders will be pivotal.

In all of these meetings, Jerusalem needs to reassure Washington and the world that Netanyahu's words were not forced by pressure from Obama, but came from a genuine desire to jump-start negotiations. The diplomatic road ahead is fraught with potential roadblocks and dangers. But the alternative is worse. Stalemate and inaction will do little to ensure Israel's security or its future.

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