Kerry: Two-year window is maximum for two-state solution

Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress he sees a maximum two-year window to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kerry delivered his remarks Wednesday to a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Answering a question from Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the committee, Kerry said that among both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, “I have found the seriousness of purpose, a commitment to explore how we actually get to a negotiation.”

However, he said, time is short.

“I can guarantee you that I am committed to this because I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” Kerry said. “I think we have some period of time in the year to year-and-a-half to two years or it's over.”

Kerry said that was the impression throughout the region — “and I've been struck in my travels, incidentally, by how many people, everywhere, raise this subject and want us to move forward on a peace effort,” he said. “They're all worried about the timing here. So there's an urgency to this in my mind and I intend, on behalf of the president's instructions, to honor that urgency and see what we can do to move forward.”

Ross Options

In his featured speech to the crowd assembled for the Yom HaShoah program at Sinai Temple, Ambassador Dennis Ross, the diplomatic point man for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process during previous administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton, acknowledged his disappointment in the current violence and outlined what he views as the likely possibilities for the conflict.

"The Palestinian people are being victimized. We have to ask ourselves who is responsible," Ross said. "I was at the negotiating table when Arafat had a chance to end the occupation." Now, he said, "It is a war. Arafat helped to bring that war on."

Noting that "it doesn’t matter" whether Arafat is unwilling or unable to stop suicide bombers, he said, "It is hard to escape the conclusion that we have crossed that threshold, where peaceful coexistence is no longer possible."

Ross laid out three options he views as possible solutions to the current fighting.

First, the "bypass Arafat" option, which he also referred to as the "exile" option. Though the suggestion that Israel "can’t deal with [Arafat] anymore" drew spontaneous applause from the crowd, Ross emphasized that "you don’t beat something with nothing," and Israel would still need a political solution, with or without Arafat.

Ross’ second option is the ideal — create a timeline of responsibilities, starting with security for both sides. Ross shared, based on his experience negotiating with both men, what he feels is the major difference between Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. With Sharon, he said, "it is hard to get him to make commitments, because he actually believes he has to fulfill them."

And so, Ross arrived at the third option, "not one I have personally favored," he said, but one that "probably will happen." The third option is unilateral separation, in which the Israelis withdraw completely from the settlements and build a wall between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The unilateral move is "not a solution," but "a way station."

"I’d like to be more hopeful," Ross said, "but I can’t be right now." — M.L.

Mixed Messages

With U.S.-Israel relations facing an explosive new crisis, a number of Israel representatives were in Washington this week, offering mixed messages about the intentions of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government.

Some Jewish leaders here said the conradictions could increase the likelihood of serious misunderstandings between the two allies as the U.S.-led war against terrorism intensifies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsens.

But the messages from the Bush administration were just as contradictory, touching off ripples of anger and concern across the Jewish world.

In private conversations with Jewish leaders and several public appearances, administration officials sought to counter fears that relentless diplomatic pressure by Arab and Muslim nations enlisted in the anti-terror fight was undercutting U.S.-Israel relations.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, speaking to the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) national convention Sunday, said that despite the coalition-building effort, America would not abandon Israel.

“We cannot have a victory if we make a coalition that sacrifices the interests of some for the interests of others,” he said.

But administration actions seemed to tell a different story.

On Monday, the administration used its harshest language yet when it condemned Israel’s incursion into six Palestinian towns in response to last week’s assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said, “Israeli Defense Forces should be withdrawn immediately from all Palestinian-controlled areas, and no further such incursions should be made. We deeply regret and deplore Israeli Defense Force actions that have killed numerous Palestinian civilians over the weekend.”

That infuriated leading pro-Israel lawmakers.

“It’s obvious they are caving in to Arab pressure,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the Jewish delegation in the House. “It’s so transparent, it’s obscene.”

Engel accused the administration of “rank hypocrisy” in criticizing Israel for doing the same thing U.S. forces are trying to do in Afghanistan: root out terrorists.

Jewish organizations were no happier with the new U.S. squeeze.

The State Department comments were “inappropriate, intemperate; and [they] defy logic in the face of current U.S. efforts in the war against terrorism,” said leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Sharon, citing Israel’s defense needs, rejected the U.S. demand for an immediate pullout; the administration then cranked up the pressure.

On Tuesday, Bush “dropped by” on a meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Even before the supposedly spontaneous meeting, the White House made it clear Bush would repeat his demand that Israeli troops be withdrawn immediately.

Bush reportedly told Peres that escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence is impeding U.S. coalition efforts in the war against terrorism.

The administration is also sending out conflicting messages about the ultimate scope of the U.S. war.

Wolfowitz, in his AJCongress speech, promised that Washington would expand the anti-terror effort, once Osama bin Laden and his network are destroyed. “We are not going just to pluck off individual snakes; we intend to drain the entire swamp,” he said.

That could mean an eventual focus on Iraq, he told the group. But the State Department continues to emphasize the bin Laden fight and downplay concern about Saddam Hussein.

“They want to have it both ways,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “The result is a message that is very garbled.” – J.D. Besser

Comedy Relief

When Heidi Joyce thinks Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she thinks comedy. It’s worked for her before in an effort to combat domestic abuse, and it works again in her new play, "Friends and Enemies."

Best known for her "Stand Up Against Domestic Violence" comedy fundraisers, Joyce opens her first full-length play this week, which runs through July 29 at North Hollywood’s Bitter Truth Playhouse.

Joyce wrote and directed "Friends and Enemies," the story of two 13-year-olds rooming together on a cultural exchange program. Both David, a Jewish boy from Cleveland, and Mahmoud, a Palestinian from Jordan, bring with them the prejudices of their parents. "Are you a terrorist?" asks David. "A Jew is a soldier with a gun," says Mahmoud.

The teens find they have more in common than inherited biases.

By the end of the first scene, David and Mahmoud are playing a video game together, crossing a line they’ve taped across their room. The play humorously tracks the boys over the next four summers. As the conflict in the Middle East grows, so, too, does their friendship as they bond over girls, family life and teenage rebellion.

Joyce wrote "Friends and Enemies" in 1992, and then set it aside as the peace process made it seem irrelevant. She brought it to the attention of colleagues as they worked on "Stand Up Against Domestic Violence" in May, as tensions in Israel escalated. Both projects are "connected to the cycle of violence," Joyce says, "a violence that gets into you before you really have a chance to know what you think."

Heidi Joyce feels that humor most effectively highlights the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it did in her domestic-abuse project. "There’s so much pathos and tragedy and nowhere to go with that. Humor is where hope lies."

"Friends and Enemies" at the Bitter Truth Playhouse, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Saturdays, 8 p.m. until July 29. For more information, call (818) 755-7900.