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GlobalPost Commentary

Russia-Ukraine crisis replaces Mideast talks as Kerry’s primary mission

Commentary: US needs to outline the solution the world expects of Israel and Palestinians, then leave them to work it out.
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US Secretary of State John Kerry and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton speak during a press conference at the Intercontinental hotel on April 17, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Leaders from EU, US, Ukraine and Russia are meeting today in Geneva to deescalate the crisis in Ukraine and to find a political solution. (Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — The Palestinian-Israeli peace train just left the station, once again empty.

Secretary of State Kerry's decision last summer to focus on finding a solution to the decades-long insoluble issue was not necessarily wrong. But what was wrong, in retrospect, was his apparent decision to do so without getting any agreement from President Obama that the US would put the needed pressure on either party for a solution.

What's the point of an honest broker if he merely moderates a discussion in preference to brokering a deal?

What has become known as Kerry's "poof" moment was his laying the primary blame for the apparent breakdown in the talks on Israel. Another more pressing and critical development emerged, overshadowing his Middle East focus even before his official nine-month deadline, on April 29 has been reached.

Kerry's immediate problem, and Obama's, is no longer how to get the Israelis out of the West Bank but how to keep Russia out of eastern Ukraine; another failure on the Palestinian front is, by comparison, a ho-hum occurrence, but a mishandled failure on the Ukrainian front could have serious and long-reaching repercussions.

There's no way Kerry can redeem his Middle East venture, but several wrap-up steps could be taken as he turns his attention to Russia and Ukraine.

First, he should state explicitly what the US position on a fair two-state solution is. Then, he should outline the positions of the two sides on each key issue. Finally, he should make a frank, lesson-learned disclosure to the American public.

To start with the last item first, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, on one of this past Sunday's talk shows, declared unequivocally that Jerusalem was the undivided capital of Israel and that under no circumstances could the Palestinians set up their capital within the boundaries of East Jerusalem.

Barkat is considered a secular politician, not an Orthodox backer of Israel’s right-wing settler movement. In his election as mayor, he drew support from the left-wing Labor party.

If he shares Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's position that East Jerusalem cannot be the capital of a future Palestinian state, this would be a deal-breaker.

If a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would lead to the collapse of the current Israeli government, would any plausible deal be politically feasible for Netanyahu? Did Kerry not consider this beforehand? And, in any case, what has he learned, in terms of political reality, by now?

As for the core issues — borders, Palestinian refugees, security, and Jerusalem — the broad parameters have long been known. Despite Mayor Barkat's radical stand, East Jerusalem has been almost universally assumed to be the future capital of the Palestinian state.

Under Netanyahu, however, Israeli settlers have surrounded the Palestinian-inhabited areas of East Jerusalem. A Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem would have to be viable in terms of its relationship to the rest of the state and not be a small island virtually enclosed by Israel.

The Temple Mount, an even more emotional issue, which includes the Muslim Dome of the Rock built over or near the ruins of the Israelites' Second Temple, could be under joint Israeli-Palestinian control; if this proves awkward or problematic, the area could initially be put under UN control.

Israel would retain about 5 percent of the occupied West Bank, which would account for at least three-quarters of the current 600,000 Israelis living in occupied territory, in exchange for an equal amount of Israeli land ceded to the new Palestinian state.

Of course, even accepting an equal, acre-for-acre land swap, it's not that simple: the Palestinian land going to Israel is in the central core of a future Palestinian state. A few hundred square miles of the Negev desert may not satisfy the Palestinians. What would? After nine months of immersion in these negotiations, what does Kerry think would be a reasonable exchange? And how does he think the Gaza Strip should be attached to the new state?

On refugees, Israel's current government, at least publicly, has refused even to accept the principle of the right of return, ostensibly for fear of a flood of Palestinians into Israel proper.

Right-wingers are further concerned it puts the legitimacy of Israel's creation at risk. That's a false fear, as is the concern over a flood of Palestinians, which could be squelched by limiting the returning refugees to those who were uprooted in 1948, and not their descendants.

And again, on this issue, Kerry should make it clear where the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators stood and what solution the US favors.

Netanyahu's government has brought up a new claim, that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as "a Jewish state," a requirement not made of the Egyptians and Jordanians; it should be rejected by Kerry as an unacceptable Israeli demand.

Viewed from the outside, with his recent focus on developing a framework for future talks, Kerry's effort appears to have achieved little in the way of serious results. If, after nearly nine months of talks, Kerry's hope was reduced to overseeing a framework discussion, what one wonders has been achieved?

Let Kerry spell it out. And let the US spell out what we believe to be the precise outline of a final settlement.

Netanyahu's government won't like it, nor will their right-wing friends in the US nor will Congressmen in thrall to AIPAC and other right-wing Israel lobbies. And the Palestinians won't be happy either. That's the nature of a compromise.

Nothing is gained by continuing to pretend that the US, having repeatedly led these two horses to water, still expects them to drink unprodded. So let both sides know what the US -- and the rest of the world -- thinks is a fair deal.

And then step aside and let them work it out.

The international antipathy towards Israel's half-century occupation and undemocratic, apartheid-like behavior is only going to grow stronger in the coming years.

As the moderate Jewish lobby J Street notes, the final collapse of Kerry's attempt will lead "to a rapid growth in Israel's international isolation and in efforts to pressure it through boycotts, divestments and the like." A future decision by the Palestinians to take Israel to the International Criminal Court would further isolate it.

Real support from the Arab countries, caught up in problems unleashed by the Arab Spring, for their Palestinians cousins is only going to weaken.

Give them both the outcome the world supports and tell them to get in touch when they're willing to accept it.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.
 

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