It is difficult to say whether President Barack Obama's initiative to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward is merely in the doldrums or is already nearing death.
He appointed early on an active, effective negotiator to take on the chore, former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, who had known noteworthy success in tackling the Northern Ireland conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear that seeking two states, Israel and Palestine, living together side by side in peace, is a high priority. She reiterated the goal again in her key policy speech last week.
It is nonetheless the case that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership -- or lack thereof -- present substantial obstacles to an agreement. Everyone suspected when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached office that he would throw any progress toward an accord into reverse. He has done just that, while articulating a position that is so ambiguous and so loaded with preconditions that it can scarcely be engaged by Mr. Mitchell or anyone else.
The primary stake that Mr. Netanyahu has attempted to drive into the peace process is his government's authorization to increase Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The most blatant example is a housing development in East Jerusalem on a property owned by a Miami-based businessman. Israel captured and occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.
The Palestinians have been comparably unhelpful in moving toward meaningful negotiations. Fatah and Hamas have continued to resist Egyptian efforts to get them to form a common negotiating front to take to the table with the Israelis, if and when. Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas' latest move was to ban, and then un-ban, the Arab news service Al-Jazeera from working in the West Bank for having dared to criticize him.
In the meantime, while the conflict simmers, Israel tries to figure out what to do with its increasingly large Arab minority, which now stands at 20 percent of the population and could jeopardize over the long run the Jewish character of the state.
Given Mr. Obama's preoccupation with the subject of health care, he must turn to Mrs. Clinton to inject new rigor into the pursuit of a settlement. She is helped in that regard by the growing activism of a Jewish lobbying organization, the J Street Group, which is increasing its activities as a counterforce to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, generally seen as opposed to a settlement.
Perhaps Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton can use the aid that the United States provides the two parties creatively. They certainly cannot retreat from this effort, given its centrality to American foreign policy.