Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has revealed an apparently sincere desire to achieve a breakthrough in peace talks with the Palestinians, even going so far as to refer to his erstwhile opponent Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a "partner in peace." Virtuous intentions are praiseworthy. Better, however, are concrete gestures. Mr. Netanyahu's resolve is being put to an early test over the necessity for an extension of the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank.
Israel's destructive habit of permitting the building of Jewish settlements on occupied territories, were it to resume when the moratorium ends on Sunday, threatens to doom the fragile present round of talks. Such a result would feed the Palestinian cult of victimization, which thrives on the characterization of Israel as unyielding and aggressive, and casts Mr. Netanyahu as an untrustworthy partner in peace.
With the takeover of the Gaza Strip by the violent Hamas faction, Mr. Abbas and his Fatah movement are the only negotiating partners available. The West Bank, which they control, is one of the subjects of the negotiations. If the moratorium ends, the Palestinian leadership would likely walk out, as they have promised to do repeatedly, and it would be hard to blame them.
For all his reputation as a hard-liner, Mr. Netanyahu would probably prefer an extension of the moratorium. But he must also pull off a delicate balancing act. He needs to keep his own governing coalition unified, and Israel's government includes elements less amenable to a deal with the Palestinians than Mr. Netanyahu.
At the same time, he will get no peace, and achieve little political gain, by catering to the factions that want to continue expanding settlements. Many of those cannot imagine or accept a two-state solution, the acknowledged solution that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have endorsed. (Similarly, Mr. Abbas cannot have any truck with those factions in Palestinian circles that continue to seek the destruction of the state of Israel.)
This is a time of decision for Mr. Netanyahu. He can and should be a demanding negotiator. But if, away from the negotiating table, contractors start work on Monday to build some of the 2,000-2,200 houses with construction approvals (as reported by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz), he may have no one to whom to make his demands. The path of peace continues to require a moratorium on new settlement construction.