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We must lead the way
Jackson Hole, Wyo.-This week former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer, will pay a visit to Jackson Hole courtesy of InterConnections21, a local nonprofit that helps our community connect with important world issues. He’ll be giving a talk about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, also the topic of a new book he has edited, a volume of 12 essays called Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
He and his fellow 11 contributors make the case that despite the popular arguments to the contrary, the United States should take swift action towards advancing renewed negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
There continues to be hope for a peace process in the Middle East, but that is waning for both the the Israelis and Palestinians. Cultural and historical conflicts, complicated by political obstinacy, muddle the path to resolving core issues like borders, refugees (Palestinian), the division of Jerusalem and security. Add to this, tensions exacerbated by Israeli settlements popping up like chiselers on a sunny day.
Kurzter and his colleagues also warn that the escalation of Arab Spring-like uprisings in neighboring states (Egypt, Syria, Jordan), the poor economy, Israel’s expanding settlement activity and general public apathy from both sides are quickly creating a pernicious landscape for diplomacy, but insist the U.S. must white-knuckle-it forward; inaction is not an option. Though each contributor to the volume has a different take on how the U.S. could shape a successful outcome, they all agree if the opportunity is missed, it will be gone for good. Here, Kurtzer explains the benefits of U.S.-led peace negotiations.
JH Weekly: The essays in the book explain that the United States should take an aggressive, thoughtful and carefully implemented lead in any Israeli – Palestinian peace plan, can you summarize why?
Daniel Kurtzer: It would be ideal if the parties in the region, the Israelis and the PLO [the Palestinian negotiating partner], were to wake up one morning and decide to take the necessary measures to get back to negotiations. Politics there are convoluted as well as divided and the expectation that there would be an initiative coming from the region would be very small.
The U.S. has traditionally played a role of some sort in Arab-Israeli peace making and we therefore thought that the focus on the U.S. would be better placed if we were expecting anything to happen. I think all of the authors and I agree that U.S. policy over the last 15 to 20 years has been less effective than it might have been, therefore we dedicated the volume to both encouraging the U.S. to be more active but also to be more active in a way that would make more sense.
JHW: A lot of policy makers, scholars or analysts are skeptical of U.S. involvement. In fact, in the book Aaron David Miller writes “can it be a coincidence that the three most dramatic breakthroughs [in negotiations] were proceeded by secret contacts between the two sides, which the U.S. knew nothing about?” Obviously you disagree …
DK: Yes, I disagree quite strongly that the U.S. should NOT be involved, but I don’t disagree for the need for “quiet diplomacy” whether it’s called secret contacts or a private channel. There’s been no Arab-Israeli diplomacy that has gotten past first base without the encouragement, assistance or catalyzing impact of the U.S. Therefore it would be nice if we learned of secret contacts underway, but it would be foolhardy on our part to stand aside and see if they work because we know from every past experience that the Arabs and Israelis might be able to get something started, but they cannot continue or finish them without the U.S. very closely involved.
JHW: Why don’t the Arabs take the lead, many say they have the most workable plan – The Arab Peace Initiative (A.P.I.)?
DK: The calculation is that they simply won’t take the lead, that the Arab states are waiting for something else to happen. The A.P.I. in fact talks about the “reaction” of the Arabs of what happens to the peace process, it doesn’t talk about the proactive efforts of Arabs in that regard.
The U.S. is the only party in the world which Israel trusts, even to some degree, and to expect that Israel is going to trust an Arab initiative to take into account adequately Israeli interests, is probably expecting too much.
JHW: Egypt’s recently elected president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are seen as an emerging voice in the region and some say a possible broker to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, but Morsi keeps getting busted for anti-Semitic or radical anti-Israel statements he’s made in the past.
Can Israel trust Morsi as a moderating Arab voice on this issue?
DK: Well, I think they found that they could trust Morsi when it came to brokering an agreement to end the last round of fighting two months ago. But I also think Israel knows that there are limits as to what it can expect from Egypt. The top of Israel’s agenda, vis-à-vis Egypt, is maintenance of the Peace Treaty (1979), it is not seeking Egypt’s role in the resolution of the Palestinian issue. The Israelis are focused primarily on what Egypt does and how Egypt acts with respect to its treaty obligations. And so far that’s been pretty good. I think the bottom line is that the Israelis will be watching very carefully to ensure that Egypt fulfills its obligations to the treaty.
JHW: In a recent Times of Israel editorial, Aaron David Miller is quoted as saying, “the Obama-Netanyahu relationship is the ‘most dysfunctional’ ever,” and “the two men mistrust one another.” How are these two going to even pretend to be partners in a peace plan?
DK: Well they’re not dance partners, they’re leaders of two respective countries that have a lot of interests that are in line, and some that are not. I think what Aaron’s referring to is that we’ve traditionally seen more warmth and more empathy between American and Israeli leaders.
I don’t think you’re going to have that because these two men basically understand there are some fundamental differences between the way they interpret their country’s interests that are not easily bridged. That doesn’t mean they can’t work together. It just means that it will be a functional relationship rather than a relationship based on love and heart-felt warmth.
JHW: Despite a press and communications law supporting freedom of expression, the PA, Fatah and Hamas filter the news that flows through Palestinian media. They harass and detain journalists outspoken against Abbas/Hamas, routinely block websites and freely promote anti-Israel/anti-Semitic propaganda in state media. In several of the essays in your book, the writers suggest getting the “Palestinian Street” on board with negotiations through honest, up-front and frequent communications. How do you do that when Palestinian media is censored?
DK: It’s a serous problem and it can’t be swept under a rug. The Palestinians have a lot of work to do with what’s normally called “incitement.” The anti-Israel, anti-Semitic stuff in their textbooks and in newspapers, the censorship, the harassment of journalists, it’s a real problem. In some respects, the Palestinians are better than other countries and in many ways, worse.
But the ability of foreign governments to get their message over the heads of a particular government, are quite varied. You have all the social media, you’ve got international broadcasting outlets. So far there’s no evidence that they’re censoring Facebook and Twitter, and it could happen, but there are so many more ways now that our message can get through. Yes, it’s a very serious problem for the Palestinians to deal with, but it’s not a problem in terms of our believing we can get our message across.
JHW: How will the PA’s decision to seek UN recognition as Non-member Observer State status, prior to any face-to-face negotiations, affect the peace process?
DK: It’s a shame that it had to take place out of frustration, and that’s really what drove it. I wrote an article for the Huffington Post in 2011 that basically said that the U.S. ought to become part of [the bid] so that we can shape the outcome. Standing aside and just opposing it was not likely to be successful; and we really were quite isolated. I had suggested [in my article] by [helping to shape] such a resolution of non-member observer state category could actually benefit the peace process as a result of it. Unfortunately that was not adopted as American policy.
I’m not sure what it has gained for the Palestinians; the concern is that they will use it as an entré into the international criminal court to transfer the dispute from political negotiations to legal wrangling, and they may do that. On the other hand, it may also backfire because if in fact they are accepted as a state then they also have responsibilities as a state which means they could be brought up in legal arguments with respect to the lack of control over violent parts of society or what we were just talking about–censorship and other harassment questions.
JHW: Can ongoing provocations by anti-Israel groups, like the BDS movement (Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement), which urge institutions, governments and individuals to boycott Israel and its exports, hinder urgent progress towards a plan? Does boycotting work?
DK: Under current circumstances the effect is very, very minimal. It’s not to say that it doesn’t exist at all, because there’s great concern in Israel about the possibility of BDS progress. But currently these are very small episodes. The real question becomes one of a tipping point: At what point does the international system believe that Israel has concretized a system of control, which is inherently unequal. Now today, that doesn’t exist. There are people who make that argument, but there is still something called a peace process. But does this last forever? Is there no end to this state of being or does it change? And then what look like minor pin pricks today, become major wounds that affect body politic of the State of Israel.
JHW: So you say Israel is not an apartheid state as some claim, but if a resolution or peace plan isn’t enacted, that could happen?
DK: I’m not the one to be quoted. Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, said this publicly about two years ago. And I agree fully with what he said: that Israel is not an apartheid state and you can count Israel among the most democratic of states in the world. But with respect to its control over the occupied territories there is a danger that it could become an apartheid state if it concretizes its control in ways that close off alternative possibilities.
JHW: Arab states clearly put the Israeli-Palestinian issue at the top of mind and often before their own domestic issues, but it’s also known some of these states openly discriminate against Palestinians at the same time. Egypt has a history of restriction of rights, violence and bigotry against Palestinians; both Lebanon and Jordan restrict Palestinian movement and rights.This seems hypocritical to me and is it difficult to factor in their input?
DK: The Arab governments know from long experience that the Palestinian issue has great resonance among the population at large and therefore they are responsive to this Palestinian issue because of the way it impacts their own domestic politics. They’re also quite nervous about the possible spillover effect that the Palestinian issue can have on their own politics, and the closer you are to Palestine, the more that’s real. Egypt now sees, for example, that with respect to security problems in Sinai, it’s affecting Egypt, not just Israel.
The Jordanians have had it for years, including a very bloody civil war back in 1970. Lebanon had its own civil war, which was exacerbated by the whole Palestinian issue. Even in the Gulf, where Palestinians have emigrated, it’s a problematic element in domestic politics. It very often impacts on the security of the states involved and you see what appears to be these contradictions, and they are. It’s just the way it is.
JHW: Is there a one-state solution that could be democratic and protect the rights of minorities?
DK: There certainly can be, but it would not ever be acceptable by the vast majority of Israelis because over time the Jewish nature of the State of Israel would be lost given demographic trends. The non-Jewish population between the Jordan River and the [Mediterranean] Sea would eventually outnumber the Jewish population and — if it‘s a democratic state with equal rights and equal voting — will be the end of Israel’s Jewish character and the beginning of something else. And the Israelis understand this, they may not have an alternative that they prefer, but they certainly don’t like this one.
JHW: Do you think many current Arab Israelis would relocate to a new State of Palestine if it ever happened?
DK: There’s no evidence of polling or ?anecdotal ?experience to suggest any Israeli Arab citizens will move. Maybe a few, here and there.
JHW: Many essays in your book insist that Hamas will be weakened in a unity agreement with the PA — and therefore that’s why the U.S. should support a unity government — do you really think the PA/Abbas government will remain in strong leadership roles in a future unity government? Isn’t it likely that the more aggressive and radicalized party eventually becomes the dominant voice? If so, then what?
DK: It’s hard to know given the dramatic changes in Palestinian domestic opinion. Hamas today, for example, seems to be more popular in the West Bank than in Gaza and that may be due to the fact that Gazans now see that they are no more effective in governing than PA. So it’s really hard to project how a unity agreement would play out. What I advocate personally is leaving the question of unity to Palestinian decision making and making the only criteria that whatever party emerges is committed to the peace process. What [the U.S. has] done, however, is create conditions that now puts the spotlight on Hamas rather than the PA, which is the real partner in peace. I think we’ve done this backwards.
JHW: Our readers live in an environment far removed from the “survival mode” most Israelis and Palestinians live in each day. Why is U.S. support and urgent promotion of a peace plan important to us out here in the Rocky Mountains?
DK: The cost of inaction has been proved time and again. Every time we have not done what needs to be done, the area erupts with the kind of violence that draws us in. And we’re drawn in for lots of reasons; there are American security and intelligence interests involved, we have affinities that often bring us back to this conflict even when we don’t want it. But there’s also the costs which are extraordinarily high in terms of very concrete American interests and also the lives and material possessions of the people out there.
JHW: Tell me about serving as commissioner of the short-lived Israel Baseball League …
DK: Well it was easier to work on the peace process than be commissioner of the baseball league. We had a league of six teams and a 40-game schedule, and extraordinarily large opening crowd and championship game crowd, even an All Star game, but it only lasted a year. And I also had, as commissioner, virtually every problem that the U.S. Major Leagues had in a hundred years, in two months.
Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, speaks 7 p.m., Feb. 7, at the Center for the Arts. $10.
How can anyone look to the U.S. to help a peace process when the U.S. is responsible for most of the world’s recent war and bloodshed?