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Kerry: The settlements are illegitimate - and not a problem for peace talks

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Majdi Mohammed/AP

(Read caption) A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli troops during a protest against Israel's separation barrier between the West Bank village of Bilin and the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit, near Ramallah, in February 2012. Israel's housing minister gave final approval to build nearly 1,200 new settlement apartments on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013, just three days before US-sponsored talks are to begin in Jerusalem.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry says expanded settlement construction in the West Bank is "illegitimate." He also says it's not a major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, set to resume tomorrow.

As he told reporters yesterday: "The United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate. That is the policy of the United States and we have communicated that policy very clearly to our friends in Israel and we have worked very closely with the Palestinians in order to try and make certain that everyone understands what the road forward will be like. I think what this underscores actually is the importance of getting to the table, getting to the table quickly."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has fought for years for a settlement freeze and he's never really gotten one. The Palestinians want settlement construction to stop because they view it as a tactic to whittle away at the size of any possible Palestinian state and understand that the larger the settler population grows, the harder it will be to move them once any deal is reached. 

Today comes word, via Israel's Haaretz, that Mr. Kerry has privately told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, that the announcement of 1,200 new housing units being put out to tender in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem violates the terms of the "return to talking" agreement that were secretly agreed to with so much fanfare in the middle of last month.

"Kerry expressed US concern over recent announcements of land being marketed for new settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem," Haaretz writes. "Senior Israeli and American officials said that Kerry told the Israeli premier that some of the tenders being published contravened agreements between the sides to curb construction over the course of the nine-month negotiations period."

Nevertheless he continues to insist that talks should go forward and told reporters in Brazil that Mr. Abbas is "committed" to sitting down tomorrow.

So, if you were puzzling over what is illegitimate – but not an obstacle to peace – plus a sign that talks should go ahead with full good faith and openness quickly, you have your answer: Settlements. (The Onion's satire of this, as usual, cut to the chase: "Israel Builds New Settlement to Host Palestinian Peace Talks").

The talks probably will happen, though they're likely to prove rancorous and unproductive given the atmosphere. And the elaborate dances with words that Kerry and other US diplomats are already being forced to engage in are yet another sign that all is not well with "peace process 3.0."

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Could this work out? All things are possible. Perhaps Abbas will give up the dream of a negotiation based on the old 1967 borders – after all, successive US administrations, including Obama's, have backed off from that call.

But settlements aren't the only issue. The Israelis dream of the Palestinians giving up the right of return for refugees, a concession that would be politically crippling for Abbas. The Palestinians dream of controlling their own borders (including Gaza) and being able to move about freely in a future state. The odds of the Netanyahu government agreeing to that? Very, very slim.

While Kerry is judicious and at times confusing with his public words, there are some with more clarity on the Israeli side of the fence. Also via Haaretz today, there's a report that Daniel Seaman, famous for his combative relationship with the foreign press in Israel when he ran the Government Press Office, is expected to soon be elevated to a senior position in the prime minister's public diplomacy office.

Barak Ravid writes that Mr. Seaman is expected to named head of an "interactive media unit... which will be in charge of coordinating the public diplomacy efforts of the Prime Minister’s Office on the Internet and the social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter" and will also start "'covert units' within Israel’s seven universities that will engage in online public diplomacy."

How diplomatic is he?

In May, Seaman, writing about longtime Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, wrote on his Facebook page  "Erekat, said his side would only agree to renew peace talks if Israel ceased all settlement activity and openly declared that a future state of Palestine would be created on the 1967 lines adding that this should not be viewed as a precondition to talks but rather as an Israeli duty," and ended with a profane sendoff.

Well, in fairness to Seaman, the Palestinians did indeed back down.

And in fairness to Netanyahu's government, they seem to have clear idea of where they're headed, and how to get there.

Can Kerry and the rest of the Obama administration stay the same?


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