Striking a balance: Obama's Middle East swing tried to set the stage

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It is fair to ask what President Barack Obama achieved in his three days in Israel and Palestine this week. And it may take a while to get the answer.

After the sometimes contentious relations that characterized his first term in office, during which he did not visit Israel, Mr. Obama sought to reinforce the close ties that have existed with the United States since Israel's independence in 1948. For example, in his speech in Jerusalem Thursday he said that America's goals for Israel were "security, peace and prosperity." He paid tribute to Israel's economic achievements, citing its $40 billion in trade with the United States, and he called America Israel's "greatest friend."

Whether prospects for new talks between Israelis and Palestinians were improved by his visit, it is hard to say.

The president relinquished U.S. support of the Palestinian demand that Israel cease expansion of its settlements in the West Bank as a pre-condition to resuming negotiations. That was one of the Palestinians' high cards, a valid one since each new Israeli settler's implantation is on territory that -- if there is an agreement -- will be part of a Palestinian homeland. Whether Mr. Obama gave up this point in des-pair after years of insisting on it, or yielded to the Israeli position for his own political reasons, or saw that concession as a means of drawing the Israelis to the negotiating table, remains to be seen.

He may also have yielded it as a means of demonstrating to the Palestinians the hopelessness of their own political situation. The term of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who would presumably be the one to negotiate with the Israelis, expired four years ago. Hamas remains defiantly separate from Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party in Gaza, leaving the Palestinians seriously divided.

Mr. Obama's message to the Israelis was nonetheless one of strong advice to negotiate with the Palestinians and to preserve Israel's future in an increasingly hostile region. He told them "People deserve to be free in a land of their own" and that "the only path to peace is through negotiations."

Americans who wish Israel well and desire long-term peace in the Middle East hope his listeners accept his counsel and that successful negotiations will follow. That outcome would make his trip worthwhile.

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