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Kerry stalks new ground on settlements, Syria and peace

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Call it a three-legged stalking horse: rapid progress toward a two-state solution, penalties for settlement expansion and engagement with Syria even as it remains in Iran’s sphere.

They were the key suggestions for advancing Middle East peace outlined by U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in a speech Wednesday following his visit to the region.

Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emphasized alacrity throughout the speech.

"There is a window of opportunity that we must seize by showing, with actions more than words, that it will not just be business as usual in the Middle East," he said.

Kerry said he would detail his recommendations in a private meeting with President Obama.

Asked for comment, a White House spokesman told JTA: "The President values Chairman Kerry’s opinions about the many critical international issues we face."

Kerry, whose endorsement during the primaries was a major boost to the Obama campaign, spoke with the assurance of a stalking horse.

"The Obama administration presents an extraordinary opportunity for a new beginning where America reclaims the role of an active and creative agent for peace," he said.

Senior Obama administration officials already have advanced some of what Kerry proposed. In a speech last week outlining Iraq policy, Obama said outreach to Iran and Syria were pillars of that strategy. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has emphasized accelerating the two-state solution during her visit this week to the region.

"The United States, through President Obama, is committed to a comprehensive peace, including a two-state solution," Clinton said Wednesday after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "We are not waiting. We are moving forward."

What distinguished Kerry’s speech, delivered at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution, were the specifics of how far the United States should go in achieving these goals. He left his meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad convinced that it was time for a direct U.S. role in Israel-Syria talks, which the Bush administration had resisted.

The talks could be nudged along by loosening sanctions against Syria, Kerry said, and by not expecting an immediate transformation in Damascus.

"Loosening certain sanctions in return for verifiable changes in behavior could actually benefit U.S. businesses, and the sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks," Kerry said.

Notwithstanding "Syria’s long-term interests" being with the West, Kerry said, "We should have no illusions that Syria will immediately end its ties with Iran." Much of the rationalization for U.S. engagement with Syria until now has been the prospect of peeling it away from Iranian influence.

On West Bank settlements, Kerry said U.S. policy opposing expansion for decades has "existed on paper alone."

"Nothing will do more to make clear our seriousness about turning the page than demonstrating — with actions rather than words — that we are serious about Israel freezing settlement activity in the West Bank," Kerry said.

He refused to elaborate what actions except to say that he would bring them up in his meeting with Obama.

While other Obama officials have chosen to emphasize the two-state solution rather than directly rebut Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to stoke the Palestinian economy before considering statehood, Kerry was blunt.

"I do agree, absolutely, it is not an alternative," Kerry said when asked about Netanyahu’s plan. "The economy is not an alternative to a two-state solution."

He was critical as well of Israeli limitations on humanitarian relief into Gaza after the recent military operation. Kerry was reported to have intervened personally to allow in truckloads of pasta after Israeli bureaucrats had determined that rice was satisfactory relief.

"I raised this with our Israeli friends," he said. "We need to broaden the definition of what is able to go in as a matter of Palestinian aid."

Much in Kerry’s speech hewed to the traditional parameters of U.S. support for Israel: getting Iran to end its suspected nuclear program was a priority; Hamas participation in any process was still stringently contingent on recognizing Israel and ending terrorism; Arab nations must play a role in suppressing Hamas’ influence and stopping the flow of arms into the Gaza Strip; the United States would continue to guarantee Israel’s security.

Kerry said he learned in his meetings with leaders of Arab nations that they had replaced the infamous "three noes" of the 1968 Khartoum conference, which counted out any dealings with Israel, with three new "noes": "No Iranian nukes, no Iranian meddling and no Iranian hegemony."

"There are a lot of tough sanctions that have yet to be explored," Kerry said.

He also swatted down a questioner who suggested Israel de-nuke in parallel with Iran. Kerry said the Arab leaders with whom he met did not even mention Israel’s nuclear capacity, which has been neither confirmed nor denied by the Jewish state..

"The notion of a new nuclear state runs counter to the interests of everybody," he said.

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