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You can't avoid settlements

Critics of the Obama administration's approach to Middle East peace, a group that includes just about everyone who is paying attention, say that focusing on Israeli settlements for the last 2 years -- as opposed to "core issues" -- was the key mistake that hindered potential progress in other areas.

Instead, these folks say, Obama & co. should have focused on borders, because once the Israelis and Palestinians agreed on the outlines of a future Palestinian state, it would be clear what was a "settlement" and what was merely a suburb of Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put himself in this camp Monday, dismissing settlements as a "marginal" issue and calling instead for negotations to focus on -- you guessed it -- "core issues."

"To reach peace, we need to discuss the issues that are really hindering peace, the question of recognition, security, refugees and, of course, many other issues," he reportedly said in a speech just hours before meeting U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

One way to read those remarks is that Netanyahu is ready to roll up his sleeves. More likely, he has no intention of meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's demand to get serious and lay his cards on the table. Note that he did not mention borders at all. Instead, he appears to be reiterating his position that the Palestinians must explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which they refuse to do, that Israel needs to have control of the Jordan Valley, another nonstarter for the Palestinians, and that the Palestinians need to give up the "right of return" (this one is more reasonable) before he'll even think about trading land for peace.

In other words, don't expect the new, settlement-free U.S. approach to yield any more progress than the old one. What's more, even if the talks did focus on borders, where the parties are supposedly closer together, it wouldn't take very long for them to come back to areas where they're further apart... namely settlements and Jerusalem. Israel won't freeze the former, and Netanyahu has said he won't divide the latter, while Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their future capital.

The lesson here is that it's devlishly complicated to jerry-rig negotiations to avoid the tough topics, especially when neither side seems especially eager to do a deal. One can come up with all kinds of sophistry justifying one U.S. tactic or another, but if Israeli and Palestinian leaders aren't serious, and aren't feeling pressure from their own publics to make peace, then nothing will work.

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Berlusconi: Ousting me would be "political folly"

The problem with elections, a wise man once said, is that the politicians always win.

So it must seem in Italy, which on Tuesday faces a dramatic no-confidence vote in Silvio Berlusconi, the country's clownish prime minister (last seen bailing a 17-year-old belly dancer out of jail under dubious circumstances and defending his actions by saying at least I'm not gay) but appears to have no viable alternative leader waiting in the wings.

Heading into Tuesday's vote, Berlusconi has been shoring up -- some would say buying -- support in the Chamber of Deputies, Italy's lower house, while making the public case that political turmoil would exacerbate the country's debt crisis. On Monday, he warned that ousting him would be "political folly" and a blow to Italy's financial stability.

It's a pretty astonishing argument: I've screwed up the economy so badly that now would be dangerous to oust me. Still, there's some truth to it: Between World War II and 1994, when Berlusconi entered the scene, Italy  averaged at least one government per year. It's quite amazing that Italy is even a developed country, given its dysfunctional politics.

Nobody seems to know whether Berlusconi has the votes, just as nobody seems to know who might replace him. James Walston runs down some Byzantine scenarios for Berlusconi successors here, ranging from Gianni Letta, a close Berlusconi associate, to Giulio Tremonti, the economics and finance minister, to Pierlugi Bersani, the opposition Democratic Party leader who staged a massive anti-Berlusconi rally in Rome Saturday. And of course, Silvio just might win.