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Originally published May 30, 2013 at 7:39 PM | Page modified May 31, 2013 at 11:22 AM

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Former U.S. attorney John McKay to aid Palestinian courts

Former U.S. attorney John McKay will travel to Ramallah on the West Bank to work for the State Department in helping establish the rule of law there.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Former U.S. Attorney and Seattle University law professor John McKay is moving to Ramallah on the West Bank, where he will spend the next two years helping the Palestinian courts and law-enforcement system prepare for eventual statehood.

McKay, 56, said he will be the U.S. State Department’s “chief of team” and rule-of-law coordinator over a 30-member Palestinian staff that includes lawyers, law-enforcement professional, technicians and project managers working with an eye toward bringing the Palestinian justice system up to speed and help establish the rule of law.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity” and an equally daunting task, given the years of conflict and the perpetually stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, McKay said Thursday shortly after posting his plans on his Facebook page.

He said the State Department approached him about the position in March and initially thought he would decline.

“But then I said, ‘Wait a minute, you believe in this stuff,’ and decided I should be willing to go where that takes me,” McKay said.

“As I told my law students, if we believe that rule of law can be an instrument of peace, then each of us has to be willing to live that anywhere we are needed,” McKay wrote on Facebook.

McKay served as Western Washington’s top federal prosecutor, appointed by President George W. Bush, from 2001 until he was fired in 2007 in the purge of nine disfavored U.S. attorneys targeted by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. Those politically motivated firings and the scandal that ensued eventually cost Gonzalez his job.

McKay worked briefly for Getty Images, then took a job as a professor at Seattle U., where he teaches about constitutional law, terrorism and national security.

He is one of 12 siblings from a large and influential Seattle family. His brother Mike is a prominent Seattle lawyer and was the U.S. attorney under President George H.W. Bush.

John McKay said he is taking a leave from the university and plans to return when his contract with the State Department is finished.

While he was U.S. attorney, he oversaw the prosecution of terrorist Ahmed Ressam and supported the Justice Department’s wars on terror and drugs. He has since had a change of political heart, leaving the Republican Party and joining causes that would have been poison to his earlier career, including his influential support of the state’s effort to legalize marijuana.

McKay has made one trip to Ramallah and has met with the Palestinian chief judges, prosecutors and top law-enforcement officials. His job will entail helping them “reverse engineer” a justice system from the remnants of ones left by years of British occupation, Israeli occupation and Islamic Sharia law.

While he says he has to remain “hopeful for peace” in the region, he’s also aware he’s been handed a big task. “They have a system of law enforcement now,” but its jurisdiction is limited and overshadowed by the Israeli presence.

McKay said he found that just 18 percent of the West Bank is under Palestinian control. The rest is under Israeli military rule.

“I was stunned,” he said upon learning the Israeli settlements — one of the largest obstacle to the peace process — are sprinkled throughout the West Bank.

“It is a daunting task, no question,” McKay said. But his role, he said, involves a “discreet set of tasks to help the government get up to their game.”

It includes training, education and “developing procedural guidelines for the application of constitutional and civil rights” and “giving them stuff.”

An example, he said, is the construction of a modernized Ramallah police station with holding cells where prisoners were once chained to walls.

He will live in Ramallah, even though Jerusalem is just a few miles away, through several security checkpoints. McKay, who will be armed only with a special U.S. passport, said he “feels safe” but is “Maybe a little less concerned about security than I should be.”

“When I told my family, all they said was that they hoped I wouldn’t start a war.”

Mike Carter: mcarter@seattletimes.com or 206-464-3706

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