Faced with running against the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman, John Kerry started in February to modify his position on Israel. Just before the New York primary, he put out word that his support for Jimmy Carter and James Baker as potential envoys to the peace process had been a “staff mistake: – their names had supposedly been inserted by unnamed staffers into a Kerry speech and distributed to the press before Kerry could remove them.

Kerry’s brother arranged a meeting in late February with Jewish leaders in Manhattan, at which Kerry reportedly assured the group he was “trying to align himself almost entirely behind Bush’s foreign policy’ on Israel. One person left the meeting predicting the Jewish community will see little difference between Bush and Kerry on Israel “because both sides are saying the right things.”

A useful way to test that observation is to review Kerry’s comments on Israel in his April 18 appearance on “{Meet the Press.” Those comments have gone virtually unreported and unanalyzed, because they appeared consistent with Bush’s position on Israel, and thus were not “news.”

But the interview sheds important light on Kerry’s views – and they are poles apart from Bush’s.

In the portion of the interview dealing with Israel, Kerry was asked whether he supported Bush’s April 14 letter regarding the West Bank settlements and the “right of return.” Kerry answered “yes.” Russert asked “completely?” and Kerry said “yes.”

The single-word answers seemed designed – per the strategy adopted for the New York primary – to align Kerry behind Bush on Israel, say the “right things,” and move on to other issues.

But the rest of the “Meet the Press” discussion was more revealing. First, there was this exchange:

Russert: You also said in December that you would consider as presidential ambassadors to the Middle East President Clinton, but also former President Carter and Secretary of State Baker. You then met with Jewish leaders and said, “I will not send Carter or Baker.’ Why”

Kerry: I think that what I was trying to talk about, Tim, was a kind of potential for bipartisanship as to how you might be able to approach putting a special envoy in place. The names obviously need to be acceptable to everybody within the community. You’ve got to do that as a matter of diplomacy. Subsequent to those names being floated, obviously, some people have different views about it.

That answer was better than the previous “staff mistake” explanation, which had tended to rankle at least part of the Jewish community, since it was demonstrably untrue.

Except that naming Carter had not been “a kind of potential,” nor had his name been merely “floated,” nor was it part of an approach intended to be “acceptable to everybody within the community.”

Here is what Kerry said in December, in a formal presentation to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where he had come to “discuss what I would do as president to change a foreign policy that is radically wrong”:

[I]t may be easier to break the stalemate and end the violence fostered by extremists if the end game is the focus, not the steps leading up to it.

In the first days of a Kerry administration, I will appoint a presidential ambassador to the peace process who will report directly to me and the secretary of State, and who will work day to day to move that process forward.

There are a number of uniquely qualified Americans among whom I would consider appointing, including President Carter, former Secretary of State James Baker or . . . . President Clinton. And I might add, I have had conversations with both President Clinton and President Carter about their willingness to do this . . . .

And it’s astonishing to me that we are not picking up somewhere near where we left off at Taba, where most of the difficult issues were resolved, in many ways.

If you think we should move directly to the “end game” (and abandon a formal Quartet Road Map that aims at “progress through reciprocal steps by the two parties” in three stages – starting with the “Palestinians immediately undertak[ing] an unconditional cessation of violence”) – and if you also think it is “astonishing” that we do not just pick up with Taba – then there is only one person you would want as your envoy (with the possible exception of James Baker): Jimmy Carter.

On November 3, 2003 – one month before Kerry’s presentation to the Council on Foreign Relations – Carter announced in USA Today that the Road Map was a “dead issue.” In his article, Carter endorsed the imminent Geneva Accord – an agreement negotiated privately by Israelis and Palestinians who had played key roles at Taba – as an “alternative” to “step-by-step approaches.” He argued a “comprehensive peace agreement” could bring peace – if Washington would give that process “full backing.”

So on December 3, 2003, when Kerry went before the most prestigious foreign policy forum in the United States, to make a major foreign policy address, and

* listed the Israel-Palestinian conflict as an example of a Bush foreign policy gone “radically wrong,”

* suggested that the “end game is the focus, not the steps leading up to it,”

* proposed to appoint a “presidential ambassador” to the peace process “in the first days of a Kerry administration,”

* named Jimmy Carter as a prospective envoy, and

* announced he had already talked to Carter about it,

Kerry was not simply “floating a name.” He was endorsing a major shift in U.S. relations with Israel – far beyond anything Howard “Even-Handed” Dean had suggested.

But that was then, right? Later, he disavowed Carter as a prospective envoy, and on “Meet the Press” said he “completely” supports the Bush position on Israel. The nuanced Senator Kerry had changed his position – right?

In a word, no.

After Kerry gave Russert his non-answer about Carter (“I think that what I was trying to talk about, Tim, was a kind of potential . . .”), Russert followed up:

Russert: Why do you think Carter and Baker are not acceptable?

Kerry: Well, that’s not important. What’s important is how to resolve the crisis, how do you move forward. I believe there?s a way to move forward, I’m convinced of that.
[In other words: Why did you suggest Carter and then reject him? None of your business, Tim.]

Now, I think what the president did in the last few days is to recognize a reality that even President Clinton came to. If you’re going to have a Jewish state, and that is what we are committed to do and that is what Israel is, you cannot have a right of return that’s open-ended or something. You just can’t do it. It’s always been a non-starter. I personally said that at a speech I gave to the Arab community in New York at the World Economic Forum. I’ve said that.

It would be interesting to know what Kerry meant by “even” President Clinton. It might also be interesting to see a copy of Kerry’s World Economic Forum speech, to see exactly what he “personally said” to the Arab community.

That speech is not on Kerry’s campaign website nor on his senate office website, and the summary of it on the World Economic Forum website does not mention any Kerry discussion of the “right of return.” Repeated e-mails to Kerry’s campaign over the past two weeks have not produced a copy.

Until one can review that speech, there is reason to be skeptical of Kerry’s rejection of the “right of return,” since, in his later October 17, 2003 speech to the Arab American Institute, he did not discuss it, much less label it a “non-starter.”

In his 2003 speech, Kerry said he knew “how disheartened Palestinians are by the Israeli government’s decision to build a barrier off the green line” – which he called “another barrier to peace.” He also said he knew that peace “looks very close . . . [to] Taba in January of 2001” and promised he would have a Middle East envoy who “would never depart” and would be “of such stature” that “we could move the process forward” along the lines of Taba.

One is also skeptical about Kerry’s rejection of the right of return given the way he phrased his “Meet the Press” answer. Kerry’s position was that “. . . you cannot have a right of return that’s openended or something.”

He did not reject a right of return. He rejected a right of return that’s “open-ended or something.” He left open the possibility of a limited right of return, one that would allegedly not affect the character of Israel as a Jewish state.

If that sounds familiar, there is a reason: Taba.

Taba was a set of marathon talks between Israeli and Palestinian delegations at the Egyptian resort of Taba between January 22 and January 28, 2001, conducted by Israel under fire, during the fourth month of the war brought by Arafat after he rejected a state in substantially all of the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem:

“The Barak government continued to offer concessions to the Palestinians, but neither the Israeli public nor the Knesset supported these positions. Ariel Sharon’s landslide victory was only days away on February 6, 2001. . . . Barak was hoping for some breakthrough that would bolster his election chances in the few weeks remaining of his term as Prime Minister.” – PalestineFacts.org.

One of the desperate concessions Barak offered the Palestinians that fateful week was a limited right of return. The Palestinians claimed they had a right of return under the December 11, 1948 UN General Assembly Resolution 194. According to the EU description of the permanent status talks at Taba:

“The Palestinian side reiterated that the Palestinian refugees should have the right of return to their homes in accordance with the interpretation of [UN Resolution] 194. The Israeli side expressed its understanding that the wish to return as per wording of [Resolution] 194 shall be implemented within the framework of one of the following programs: [return to Israel, to Israel swapped territory, to the Palestine state, rehabilitation in host country and relocation to third country]. . . .”

According to the EU summary, the Israeli side informally suggested a 15-year absorption program, with 40,000 in the first five years, but the Palestinian side did not present a number. The Palestinians took the position that “negotiations could not start without an Israeli opening position” – without, in other words, a formal Israeli acknowledgment of the principle under discussion.

As in the conversation with the woman at the bar, the essential point would be established first; the price would be negotiated after that.

According to Yossi Alpher, former senior adviser to Barak, “The formulae presented at the Taba negotiations in January 2001 for bridging the right of return gap did little to reduce Israeli anxiety. It emerged that Palestinians interpreted Israel’s reported readiness to state that a refugee agreement constitutes implementation of Resolution 194, as an Israeli acknowledgment of the right of return.”

In other words, if Israel formally proposed limits on an alleged Palestinian “right” to return to Israel, Israel would have effectively conceded the existence of such a right – with no assurance that the “limits” on that “right” could be successfully negotiated, or (if negotiated) actually implemented, or (if actually implemented) accepted as final by future generations.

The heart of the Bush April 14 letter to Sharon is its unambiguous statement that Palestinians will return to Palestine, not Israel. There can be no negotiation over the specifics of a “limited” right of return without Israel effectively conceding something that has no basis in either international law or UN Resolution 194 itself, and that would be used to de-legitimize the Jewish state.

The Bush Letter is a major step forward toward peace, because peace will not come as long as the Palestinians think there is a chance for return, or a chance to negotiate a principle that will lead to it later. The problem is not a right of return that is “open-ended or something.” The problem is that discussion of any “right of return” is a non-starter.

Taba was a strategic disaster for Israel and for the prospect of peace, because it demonstrated that Israel – having already offered maximum territorial concessions – would, if that offer were rejected, offer even more dramatic concessions, proving that additional war would produce even better terms, that it was not necessary for the Palestinians to concede a “right of return,” that the leaders of Israel were desperate for peace, and that there was no penalty for the rejection of Oslo. On the contrary, there was the reward of more negotiations, and new concessions, even while a renewed war (foresworn at Oslo) was in progress.

To suggest – in the midst of a barbaric post-Oslo war, now in its fourth year – that the thing to do is abandon the Road Map, with its insistence on an end to violence, and to pick up where we left off at Taba, with its discussions about a “limited” right of return, is (there is no other word) astonishing.

But that was Kerry’s position at the Council on Foreign Relations in December, and, as his “Meet the Press” phrasing shows, it still appears to be his position now. His support of Bush on Israel is far from “complete.”

And that is why he couldn’t answer the question why Carter was “not acceptable.” To Kerry, he wasn’t and isn’t unacceptable. On the contrary, Kerry’s approach to Israel is Jimmy Carter’s, whether Carter ends up as the envoy or not.

Rick Richman edits Jewish Current Issues.

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Rick Richman, whose work has appeared in The New York Sun, The Tower Magazine, and The Jewish Press, among other publications, is a prolific writer who appears regularly in Commentary magazine and its group Contentions blog, where this originally appeared. He also maintains the Jewish Current Issues blog (www.jpundit.typepad.com/jci/).