American Jewish former diplomat speaks in Cairo

Daniel Kurtzer, the former diplomat, continues to be soft-spoken, and his outlook envisions opportunities for conflict resolution.
February 18, 2015

Daniel Kurtzer, the former diplomat, continues to be soft-spoken, and his outlook envisions opportunities for conflict resolution. But his assessment for future prospects for a Mideast peace settlement concentrate on Washington’s failure to hold Israel accountable for actions he believes endanger implementation of a meaningful agreement. 

Kurtzer, 66, served as United States Ambassador to Egypt from 1999 to 2001 and to Israel from 2001–2005.  

He is also an Orthodox Jew whose appointment to the senior posting in Cairo during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak elicited hostile responses in Egypt’s popular media, including anti-Semitic caricatures.

“I’ve chosen to talk in Cairo about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, because here it is possible to have a discussion about it,” Kurtzer said during a recent speech at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

“Unfortunately, in Washington, much of that conversation has been stifled over the years by a kind of consensus that runs the gambit from, ‘Its impossible to achieve’ [to] ‘It’s too dangerous to even try.’ ” Kurtzer said. 

“A third Intifada is inevitable without some progress toward resolution of the conflict,” Kurtzer warned his audience.

“Status quos are not static in this region, and at some the point pressure builds up — you either relieve that pressure by showing people there is an avenue to reach agreement, or the situation explodes.

Kurtzer now serves on the board of trustees at AUC, the institution commonly considered to be the premier center of private higher education in Egypt. 

The former ambassador identified Washington’s muted response to continued Israeli settlement activity as the major factor impeding a two-state breakthrough.

“You can’t aspire to a territorial outcome while at the same time settling the territory on which the other side is eventually going to exercise sovereignty … it makes no sense. It sends exactly the wrong signal to the other side, that negotiations are a sham,” said Kurtzer, who believes the administration could jolt Israeli complacency on the issue by excluding goods produced in the West Bank settlements from the benefits of the free-trade agreement with the United States.

Kurtzer was part of George H.W. Bush’s policy team that obtained concessions from former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to refrain from using American loan guarantees to build housing for newly arriving Russian immigrants in the West Bank.

“If the president of the United States came along and simply wondered out loud about why we are providing free trade benefits to the settlements, and all of a sudden the question were raised, that would probably be enough to move the numbers,” Kurtzer asserted.

Egyptian novelist and diplomat Ezzedine Fishere expressed admiration for Kurtzer’s persistent pursuit of a negotiated outcome, even as he articulated a widely shared Arab view that the forces in Israel opposed to compromise are too firmly entrenched to move on the core issues.

“At what point are you ready to declare that the two-state solution is dead?” asked Fishere, who spent a year in Tel Aviv as Egypt’s political attaché and is currently a member of the Liberal Arts faculty at AUC. 

Kurtzer responded that it was too early to give up attempts at working out an agreement because, in his view, the U.S. still has not mustered all its negotiation efforts to “get the diplomacy right.”

“John Kerry started out quite positively in his diplomacy because he didn’t just try to get the two sides back to the negotiating table; he tried to create a kind of infrastructure as a safety net for the talks,” Kurtzer said.

Kerry’s “architecture” included getting foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to come to Washington to reiterate the Arab Peace Initiative and appointing Gen. John Allen to pinpoint security issues and propose solutions. 

“[Allen] was there to provide answers when Israel [said], ‘We need defensible borders,’ ” Kurtzer said.

“But at the critical moment, when the two sides had proved unable to reach an agreement on terms of reference, the United States walked away rather than using that moment to put forth an American idea — or, even better, to bring in the international community and put forward a security council resolution,” Kurtzer said in describing the collapse of the Kerry initiative. 

Despite his focus on American and Israeli shortcomings in returning the two-state framework to viability, Kurtzer challenged some common assumptions voiced by AUC graduate students during the audience question period.  

“This summer’s war in Gaza was not an Israeli attempt to regain control of territory or of Palestinian gas resources in the Mediterranean,” Kurtzer said.

“In the past, the United States and Egypt may have had different views of Hamas; we don’t have those differences anymore,” he noted.

“Hamas is now seen by a growing segment of opinion here as a terrorist organization, and not just as an organization that is threatening Israel, but also the security and stability of Egypt, as well. “

The former ambassador also questioned the effectiveness of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, if the intended outcome is meant to change Israeli thinking.

“If you are going to try and punish, you might also think about incentivizing — maybe there are carrots here, even if you are contemplating using sticks.“At the risk of rankling some people in the audience, I believe that if there were more participation in civil society initiatives bringing Arabs and Israelis together even before final status issues were resolved, it would be a lot easier for negotiators to win political support for their efforts.”

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