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Kurtzer: Next U.S. President Must Give Priority to Arab-Israeli Talks

Interviewee: Daniel C. Kurtzer, S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle East Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 16, 2008

Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, led a recent study group on negotiating Arab-Israeli peace sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace. He says that it is doubtful President Bush’s goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of this year will occur, but the next U.S. president must make these negotiations a priority. He also suggests initiating discussions with Syria and Iran.

Is there any real possibility for the Bush administration’s latest efforts, launched at the Annapolis conference last November, to get a two-state solution by the end of the year?

The president set a very high goal here, and without a commensurate level of investment of time and effort by the United States, there’s no way that the Annapolis process will succeed. There are two things that were supposed to emerge from Annapolis. Number one was an agreement, either in principle or even in detail, on the substantive issues in dispute between the Palestinians and Israel. And second was a major change in behavior, consistent with the road map agreement of 2003, where Israel would stop settlement activity and pull down outposts and increase mobility by pulling down roadblocks and check points. On the Palestinian side, they were supposed to go after and uproot the terrorist infrastructure and really get serious about building the infrastructure of a Palestinian state. But not enough is happening on either track. And the United Stateshas not acted enough in dealing with what’s happening.

Let’s go on to 2009. We’ll have a new president in the White House. The United States has been actively involved on and off in mediation efforts in the Middle East since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. If you were asked by the president for your advice, how would you start out? What would the United Statesneed to do first?

The president needs, first of all, to sort out his or her priorities. And the major priorities in the Middle East will be IraqandIran. There’s no question that Iraq will define much of whatever the next president does in the world, especially in theMiddle East. And the emerging possible nuclear threat from Iran is close behind as a strategic issue for the United States. In that context, we found in our study group—and the advice that I would therefore impart to the president—is that there is a value in assigning some priority to the Middle East peace process because it helps you not only see whether or not opportunities are there to resolve the dispute or make progress on it, but it also helps you in building coalitions with Arabs. The Arab world appreciates our effort to work on the Arab-Israeli issue. It’s in our own interests to work on the Arab-Israeli issue and it also pays dividends in inter-Arab terms.

In the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was almost a one-man show, negotiating two disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt and then one with Syria. Later on, Secretary of State George Shultz in the Reagan administration tried to get a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon that eventually failed. Secretary of State James Baker got the Madrid Conference going in the first Bush administration. During the Clinton administration, there was a special envoy, and then President Clinton himself got very deeply involved. Is there a procedure that works better than other procedures?

As your point makes clear, there are a lot of options for making progress in the peace process. And the amount of progress you make, in a sense, is not in the first instance tied to the choice you make with respect to an organization. What really depends is how much experience you can draw into that process. Now, if the next president decides to invest in an envoy, then I would hope that envoy can bring together an experienced team with diverse backgrounds. And what I mean about that is people who know a great deal about the Middle East—about the Arab world, about the Muslim world, about Israel, about the issues that are out there—so that you don’t have any kind of perception of tilt in the level of expertise and experience. The kind of organization and the kind of structure of the team is far less important than making sure that it has a presidential backing and it’s got a lot of expertise and experience.

Are there actually those kinds of experts in the U.S. Foreign Service?

There certainly are. We found in the course of our study that, unfortunately, too often the experts within the State Department and other branches in the government weren’t consulted and weren’t brought into the dynamics of the negotiating process. Sometimes the process becomes so insular that it was only a very small group of people who thought they had all of the expertise within their group, but it turns out they really didn’t.

Is it necessary for the new president to speak out very early on this issue?

Decidedly so. This is one of the main recommendations that we make in our book. The president need not become the desk officer, so to speak, or make this a top priority. But the parties in the region and outside the region need to know that this is a presidential priority. And, you know, we’re a country that can walk and chew gum. We can manage a complex diplomacy across a number of fronts.  Sometimes we have failed to try that diplomacy, but when we have tried working on North Korea and Middle Eastern issues, and Russia and China, we have enough expertise, and with a good national security structure, we can manage complex negotiations across a wide front. The president needs to articulate that this issue is important to him or her, to invest in a team, whatever the structure is that the president decides, and to periodically let people know that this is important, and that the president is following up.

The parties in the region and outside the region need to know that [a Palestinian-Israeli process] is a presidential priority.

The United States now officially won’t talk to Hamas. Some experts think unless you deal with Hamas, you can’t really get a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. How do you come down on that subject?

As a matter of principle, I am in favor all the time of maximizing the scope of the people we talk to. We have tended in the past too often to establish preconditions for dialogue that end up being set in stone. In the particular case of Hamas, our attitude in the past was that before the [Second] Intifada [in 2000-2001], we talked to a lot of people who probably were Hamas. But during the period of active engagement by Hamas in terror, I think it was right not to engage with them. They then got elected on the basis of an election that we wanted held, and we changed the focus. Instead of focusing on the Palestinian Authority and insisting that the Palestinian Authority maintain its fealty to issues like recognizing Israel and renouncing terrorism, we switched the focus to Hamas. And it became a Hamas issue instead of a Palestinian Authority issue. So you have a strategic question here, which is, in principle, to maximize the amount of people we can talk to around the world. And in the particular case of Hamas, right today I would not argue in favor of talking to Hamas. I agree with the proposition that you can’t implement an agreement in the Middle East without Hamas. But you can reach an agreement without Hamas, and then let the Palestinians sort out their internal politics on the basis of such an agreement, where Hamas is then asked, “Will you or will you not support an agreement that has been initialed or signed by President Mahmoud Abbas?”

The president set a very high goal here, and without a commensurate level of investment of time and effort by the United States, there’s no way that the Annapolis process will succeed.

And Abbas seems willing to try that, right?

If there’s logic to Annapolis, it seems that’s the logic: Abbas understands that he’s not going to implement an agreement, but he wants to reach an agreement in order to use that as a set of guidelines for a government that would be reconstituted with Hamas should they choose to join.

The Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia still support an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, don’t they?

Decidedly so. It was just a year ago that the Arab world reconfirmed the so-called Arab Peace Initiative, which is very important. And there’s no indication that anyone has backtracked from that. There’s frustration that there’s been no progress, and that’s why the Arabs showed up in Annapolis in the end. They wanted to see progress. So that’s a tool that can be used by the parties and by the United States to help create a support structure for the negotiations.

You spent a long time as ambassador in Israel. What is your sense of the Israeli government now? Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems quite desirous of making a deal with Abbas. On the other hand, those issues you talked about—the settlements, the various problems on allowing Palestinians to move about, really haven’t been dealt with much. Is he stuck, politically?

There is every reason to believe that he remains committed to exactly what he got elected to do. In the election in 2006 in Israel, Prime Minister Olmert told the Israeli people what he planned to do. He said, “I want to achieve an agreement that would determine the future borders of the state, and if I can’t do it bilaterally, I plan to do it unilaterally.” Now, things intervened, like the war in Lebanon. The prime minister is still committed to reaching an end of this conflict, presumably or hopefully though negotiations and agreement, but if not, he would do so or want to do so unilaterally. He is, however, handicapped by a coalition right now, which is challenging. It requires a lot of deftness on his part to continue to maneuver. These are parties like Labor that would like him to keep going, but also have ambitions of their own with respect to governance. He has parties on the other side, on the right, who are less anxious to keep going in the negotiations but are a bit hesitant about pulling out because they have other interests that accrue from being in the government. And that requires, as I say, a great deal of deftness on his part. So far, he’s been able to continue a dialogue with Abbas. The one area where there’s been less progress is the one you noted in the question, which is in the so-called behavioral changes that were supposed to flow from Annapolis, settlements and so forth.

You can reach an agreement without Hamas, and then let the Palestinians sort out their internal politics on the basis of such an agreement.

We haven’t talked yet about the parallel peace negotiation between Israel and Syria, which has been stagnant since Bush came to office in 2001. Do you give much priority to that, or would you put that as a secondary issue?

Oh, it’s definitely not a secondary issue. I’ve been very disappointed that there’s been no effort even to see whether or not there was seriousness on the part of Syria to start talking. And I don’t say that because I’m convinced that there is. I was in Damascus fifteen months ago, so it hasn’t been recently, but they were talking then about an interest in resuming negotiations. I’m not sure that it’s doable, but I don’t understand why we wouldn’t even try to see whether or not possibilities exist. I mean, that’s what diplomatic probes are all about, and the pre-negotiations, and all the pre-discussions you can have without committing. And yet, this has been an administration inWashingtonthat hasn’t wanted to talk to Syria. The Syrians have been awful with respect to Iraq and their support for the insurgency. But still, I don’t know why we don’t see whether or not openings exist to change that attitude and change that behavior.

Would you go so far as to initiate a discussion with Iran? Because Iran, after all, has interests not only on the nuclear front but also in support for Syria, and Hezbollah.

Very much so. I am a firm believer in the need to talk to your enemies. And frankly,Iranis an enemy. They’re an enemy because of their hell-bent policy toward acquiring nuclear weapons. They’re an enemy with respect to their support for terrorism. They’re an enemy with respect to the god-awful statements of their president with respect toIsraeland the Holocaust. So I don’t enter into such a dialogue or discussion withIranwith any expectation that I’m entering into a friendly discussion. This will be a tough, no-holds-barred opportunity to talk. But I want to talk. And I want to hear what their concerns are. If they come in and start preaching to me about the Holocaust not existing, and about the need for Israel to be destroyed, well, we tried and we find that there’s nothing to talk about. But what if they have other issues on their minds, with respect to regional security, or with respect to Iraq, or with respect to U.S. behavior in the Gulf? You know, whatever their agenda may be, there may be something that we can talk about. Even if we can’t reach agreements, talking is not a bad thing.

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