George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Mideast, is a patient man. Otherwise, he would have given up his current task -- brokering an agreement to halt Israeli settlement construction -- long ago. Mr. Mitchell, though, perseveres, even when the nuances of Israeli and Palestinian diplomacy and politics thwart his effort to reach a sensible goal. The latest test of his patience came Wednesday, when a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the subject of settlements produced nothing of import.
Indeed, the only useful decision reached was an agreement to meet again on Friday. That will be the third talk between the pair on the subject, but there's little indication that the forthcoming meeting will prove any more useful than the first two. The continued stalemate creates significant problems -- for Israelis, for Palestinians and for the Obama administration.
Palestinians continue to demand that Israelis stop building and populating settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Palestinians claim that land as part of a future state. Israelis reject that contention, demanding that Palestinians renounce terrorism, cease calling for the destruction of Jews and recognize Israel's right to exist before meaningful peace talks can begin. The resulting impasse has stalled talks before; it continues to do so now.
The Obama administration has made it clear that it is pretty much fed up with both Israeli intransigence on the settlement issue and the Palestinians' apparent inability to build a government capable of representing its people with a single voice. Through it all, the United States continues to push for a two-state solution. That's a wise and equitable policy.
Mr. Mitchell trods a delicate line in promoting it. He continues to assure Israelis of U.S. support even as he urges them to give up settlements to jump-start the effort to secure the nation's borders. He promotes strong government free of the stain of terrorism in the Palestinian territories, and he travels to Arab and Muslim capitals to convince leaders to become participants in the Mideast peace process rather than idle observers or secret supporters of unrest. He's done excellent work in a pressure-packed environment.
New time constraints make the special envoy's task especially difficult. Mr. Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, his Palestinian counterpart, will be in the United States next week. President Obama would like to set up and perhaps moderate the first face-to-face talks between the pair while they are here. That could be beneficial to all parties involved, but it is unlikely to occur without movement on the settlement issue.
Mr. Netanyahu, so far, has refused to budge much. His offer of a temporary moratorium on settlement construction is hardly sufficient to alter Palestinian or world opinion on the subject. A full halt would be more effective. It would call the Palestinians' bluff without weakening Israel's ability to protect its long-standing borders.
Much more than usual is riding on the U.S. envoy's Friday meeting with Mr. Netanyahu. Failure to achieve at least some Israeli concessions on continued settlement building will test Mr. Mitchell's patience for sure. More importantly, the inability to reach even minimal accord will prolong the impasse that makes the Mideast such a dangerous place.