Middle East peace talks are as important as ever

Recent events in the Ukraine have so dominated the foreign policy arena that it is easy to lose sight of other trouble spots that are equally important to world peace and U.S. interests.

Since July — four months before anti-government demonstrations began in Kiev — Secretary of State John Kerry has been engaged in talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

That effort — the latest in a string pursued by every administration since the Camp David accords of the Jimmy Carter presidency — is approaching a critical juncture.

Reaching any kind of agreement is just as much a long shot today as it was for any recent president, but the effort must be made.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader and negotiator Mahmoud Abbas know what each side wants and must know that no one is going to get everything they want. The rest of the world will get a better idea of where the talks have been heading when the Obama administration publishes a set of principles that will serve as the basis for peace negotiations.

Clearly any agreement is going to have to involve each side recognizing the right of the other to have its own state. The success or failure of the talks will depend not only on geography of those states, but, in no small part, on semantics.

The geography is complicated by the amount of territory Israel has populated as part of a sometimes aggressive settlement policy. While Israel ceded Gaza to the Palestinians and even forcibly removed recalcitrant Israeli settlers, no one can believe that it will do the same with all of its West Bank settlements.

In 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to land swaps that would have allowed Israel to keep some of its settlements while compensating Palestinians with land that would be “reciprocal in terms of both quantity and quality.” But even then Israel would have ended up with a net territorial gain of about 4 percent. Kerry is going to have to broker a deal that is 50-50 or there will be no deal.

On the Palestinian side, there’s going to have to be recognition that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians do not have a “right of return” to an Israel that they or their ancestors abandoned 75 years ago in belief that Jews would soon be driven into the sea.

Throughout the Middle East, Jews and Christians have been driven from Muslim countries, even as one Muslim sect has driven out another. In the real world, there is no equitable or practical solution to those kinds of forced migration.

Stumbling block

The status of Jerusalem remains a stumbling block, with neither willing to relinquish its claim. But the time has come to agree to a fair petitioning of the city and its suburbs, with an international administrator overseeing an area that has special meaning to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

When it comes to questions of Israel and Palestinians, there are forces on both sides that fervently want to turn the clock back, either to a biblical “greater Israel” or to a time when there was no Israel. It is time to look forward and work toward peace rather than to dream unrealistically about what may or may not have been.

Whatever the specifics of his plan might be, Kerry will be prodding Israel and the Palestinians into a future where they live and work in adjacent nations, concerned more about what they can build for themselves rather than what they can take from the other.

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