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John Kerry’s speech and the UN are a distraction – only direct, secret talks can solve the Israel-Palestine conflict

This article originally appeared in the Telegraph.

In a forceful, rambling speech, John Kerry delivered perhaps his last soliloquy on the world stage and demonstrated why his record in office has been so unremarkable. The principles he set out offer a way forward but it was too little, too late.

The backdrop was the bitter row over the UN Security Council resolution and Israel’s claims of infamy and treachery. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and often a zero sum game; a resolution that condemns just Israel and only places obligations on Israel, will be notorious but unhelpful. The resolution called for an immediate end to Israeli settlement building as if this were the core of the conflict, which misses the point – the conflict predates the settlements and would continue if they were all evacuated.

Kerry’s speech was a rallying cry for the two state-solution and he outlined his fear that the Israeli right could achieve its goal to annex the West Bank, legalise new settlements and create a noxious one state reality. A new Israeli law to retroactively legalise settler outposts built illegally on private Palestinian land is passing through the Israeli Parliament and it’s likely that this propelled the UN resolution forward. Kerry has a point. Netanyahu must explain why he allowed this dangerous law to progress and signal that there are red lines he won’t cross.

But of all the issues in this conflict, settlements can be solved. Israel has repeatedly offered land for peace – in 2000 and 2008 it offered the Palestinians nearly all of the West Bank, evacuating settlements in that area. In 2005 Israel departed from every Israeli house in Gaza. Illegal Israeli outposts are hugely problematic – they signal to Palestinians that their dream of statehood is receding, but they are also Israel’s problem; Israel will have to dismantle them and rehouse the residents if and when a deal is done.

In two areas Kerry’s speech was useful. Firstly, he acknowledged what Israelis and Palestinians have accepted in their previous negotiations – that some of the largest Israeli settlements close to the 1967 line could become part of Israel. Secondly, Kerry said that Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state.

Solving the refugee problem is far more intricate and the Palestinians will be unhappy that Kerry appeared to close off the option of large numbers of refugees going to Israel and stressed resettlement in other countries. In every round of negotiation it has been refugees and Jerusalem that have been the stumbling blocks.

But there is a more fundamental question that Kerry never addressed. In the last 15 years Israel has made generous offers to the Palestinians, to evacuate settlements, share Jerusalem and even resettle some refugees. Why did the Palestinians reject them? Is the deal not good enough or are Palestinian leaders unable to accept that the war is over and share the land with Israel?

Kerry was scathing about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right wing coalition, but like them or not, they are in power because Israeli voters put them there. The Israeli left crumbled and the dream of peace was destroyed not by settlers, but by Palestinian leaders rejecting generous peace deals and facilitating or inciting waves of terrorism. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza looms large in the Israeli psyche. Israel gave up land for peace and Hamas reciprocated with missiles, terrorism and war.

To solve this conflict we need to rebuild trust. We can’t put the Oslo process in the microwave and hope for the best. The last 20 years have shown that the only way to progress is direct negotiations in a secret back channel where new, creative ideas can be explored far from the public glare. Everything else is a distraction.

James Sorene is CEO of BICOM.