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Kurtzer: U.S., Israel and West Should Be Ready to Deal With New Palestinian Government If Headed by Non-Hamas 'Independent'

Interviewee: Daniel Kurtzer
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 10, 2006

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Daniel C. Kurtzer, who concluded a five-year tour as U.S. ambassador to Israel last year, says if Hamas chooses to install an independent as prime minister, "I hope that we, the Israelis, and the Europeans are flexible enough and adaptive enough to know how to keep it going."

"We have principles, we're not going to deal with terrorists, and we're not going to deal with parties which don't recognize Israel's right to exist, but we can deal with a Palestinian Authority which remains loyal to those positions, even if the parliamentary support of the authority has a different aspect," says Kurtzer, who is the first S. Daniel Abraham visiting professor in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "I think if we're agile enough in our diplomacy, we can at least keep alive the prospect of an engagement with the Palestinian Authority, should that kind of government emerge."

He also says Ehud Olmert, Israel's acting prime minister, head of the Kadima Party the front-runner in Israel's elections next month, would make a solid prime minister. Kurtzer, breaking with the general view of experts who believe Iran has not decided to build nuclear weapons, says he believes strongly that Iran has already decided to try and build such weapons.

What do you make of the situation now, with the election campaign going on in Israel to choose a new prime minister, and with the Palestinian legislative elections just over, in which a new government dominated by Hamas will have to be formed?

I think the situation in Palestine is going to take quite some time to sort itself out. What you have is a brand new set of officials who are going to take their place in government, replacing those who had managed the Palestinian Authority pretty poorly over the last ten years. In some cases, these officials were rife with corruption. Just the other day, the Palestinian attorney general talked about corruption that could extend into the billions of dollars.

So it's not just a normal transfer of authority from one group to another, but a real upheaval, which is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that Hamas has an agenda at odds with everything that preceded it within the Palestinian Authority, let alone vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The West generally has been correct in making clear the conditions for dealing with a Hamas-led government, but I hope that we now go into "radio silence" and allow the Palestinians to make their own choice. I don't want them to have an excuse that everyone was talking so loudly they couldn't think. I think it's time for them to confront the reality of what they face, and once they make the decision, everyone can act accordingly.

I guess as ambassador to Israel your contacts with Hamas were nonexistent, but do you know much about the leadership of Hamas?

U.S. officials don't meet [with] Hamas [leaders]. I am sure that some of my embassy officers met with people who were generally associated with that movement, but any so-called card-carrying member would have been off-limits given that the United States has declared Hamas a foreign terrorist organization. We don't have a really good feel from an up-close relationship. Hamas itself was also divided between its internal leadership—which has been largely decimated as a result of Israeli counterterrorism— and the external leaders who are very much under the sway of Iran and others. So even though Hamas never spoke with one voice, it's much worse now, given the fact that you have this split between internal and external leaders.

What's your feeling about Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the president of the Palestinian Authority? Is he determined to move ahead in peace negotiations as he says he is, or can he move ahead if Fatah doesn't join the government?

He's a man who has a long record of moderation. He spoke out against the violence of the intifada right from the beginning and kind of withdrew from public life for a while in protest over [then-President Yasir] Arafat's failure to stop the violence. But his record—first as prime minister, a couple years ago, and now as president—hasn't been as strong as it might have been. He has attempted to negotiate with the groups that have been involved in terror: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and others. He tried to bring them into the so-called tahdiye, a kind of pre-truce calm, and it worked not very efficiently. Islamic Jihad consistently violated [the truce] and attacked Israeli targets. So Abu Mazen has not shown the willingness to take the very definitive steps that are called for in the quartet-sponsored road map, but has rather sought to diminish friction within the Palestinian community, and that has not been effective.

Let's talk about Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who heads the Kadima Party. What kind of person is he?

I have known him quite well for several years. I have come to respect all of his qualities. He is a gentleman, a very, very astute politician, and a leader. He knows how to take decisions even when they're tough ones. If anyone had to be thrust into this role, following Ariel Sharon's sudden illness, I think it's healthy for the state of Israel that Mr. Olmert was No. 2 at the time.

But he has his plate full. First, he has to keep Kadima together. It's a brand-new party that hasn't yet established its identity. No. 2, he has a lot of people in that party who have their feet in a lot of different camps. There are former Labor Party leaders who are inclined toward the left of the spectrum. There are former Likud folks who are inclined to the right. And he's been trying to navigate a course that keeps everybody happy. And then, of course, he's got all the strategic issues that don't wait for the election: Iran's nuclear program, what to do about Hamas, how to respond to terrorism? I have a lot of confidence in him. I think he's going to prove to be a really terrific leader. I think Kadima will prevail and get enough seats to form the next government, and I think Olmert will prove his capabilities as prime minister.

He gave a recent interview in which he spelled out, in some detail, his ideas for perhaps having additional unilateral withdrawals by Israel on the West Bank, of course. He spelled out which areas he definitely wanted to keep, such as Gush Etzion (southwest of Bethlehem), Ma'ale Adumim (east of Jerusalem), Ariel (east of Tel Aviv), metropolitan 'united' Jerusalem, and he didn't want to give up control over the Jordan valley. He said he still wanted to negotiate with Palestinians on the road map, if there were Palestinians to negotiate with. But this must be down the road; he can't do this right away, can he?

Well, first of all, none of this is a surprise to anybody. This is the set of positions that even Sharon had begun articulating. He wasn't quite as specific as Olmert, but he made clear that there was going to be a focus on the big settlement blocs, the ones you mentioned. We knew that Sharon, for security reasons, had a very strong attachment to the Jordan valley. So these are not at all surprising positions, and public opinion polls in Israel have suggested that there's also a very large consensus that these are the parts of the West Bank that Israel should retain.

It's also not surprising that he also addresses the road map as his preference. But as a fallback, you know, if there's not a partner for the roadmap, he and Sharon have both said they would do what's good for Israel and define what Israel needed for its security and well-being.

So, in a sense, the only thing surprising is that he has done this in the middle of an election campaign. You don't normally get Israeli leaders going out on a limb during the election. But on the other hand, Sharon, six months ago, had said he didn't want anybody to be surprised by what he intended to do, and I think Olmert has kind of seized on that. He's not going to fool the Israeli public.

What should the United States be doing right now? Is this a difficult policy time for the U.S. government?

Not necessarily. I think there are some short-term things we have to do that involve a lot of diplomacy. We've been doing some of them. Clearly we're trying to build an international and Arab consensus in support of what Hamas needs to do, and we've been quite successful so far. The quartet basically has adopted a unified position. The U.N. Security Council has also indicated that it wanted to see Hamas recognize Israel and stop terrorism. I think over the next six to eight weeks, until the Israeli elections are finished, that will be one of the two or three highest priorities in U.S. diplomacy, which is to keep the international consensus strong so that Hamas doesn't think it can escape its obligations.

You have to come up with an approach that makes sense. If you don't really have a Palestinian Authority leadership ready to implement the roadmap, and you do have an Israeli leadership that wants to move ahead unilaterally, the U.S. government has to figure out how to respond to that. And, you know, President Bush two years ago responded to Sharon's initiative by indicating our support for the retention by Israel of some of these blocs, and also our opposition to a return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. The administration is going to have to think, now, what does it do beyond that which would be adequate for Olmert in order to move forward.

Hamas leaders are trying to work out what kind of government they want to see in effect, knowing that if it's a purely Hamas government, they will get no international support outside a few Arab countries, right?

Yes, I think that's right.

So what would happen if they picked an independent prime minister, someone who isn't a Hamas member, but obviously someone they can live with, and added some other experts to his cabinet? Would that pass muster, do you think, so far as foreign aid went?

Well, I think that's exactly the direction that some within Hamas are arguing. There's this view that Hamas itself was surprised and perhaps disappointed by the results. It may have wanted to do well, but it may not have wanted responsibility for running the show. So I think there is a view in Hamas that holds: "We can be a powerful force in the parliament, let's get ourselves a government of essentially technocrats and independents which knows that it has to come to the parliament for support, so it can't stray too far. The world could relate to such a government, and we [Hamas] would keep the government in check."

I think that's very much an argument that's going on behind the scenes, now. If that happens, I hope that we, the Israelis and the Europeans are flexible enough and adaptive enough to know how to keep it going without becoming pregnant. In other words, we have principles, we're not going to deal with terrorists, and we're not going to deal with parties which don't recognize Israel's right to exist, but we can deal with a Palestinian Authority which remains loyal to those positions, even if the parliamentary support of the authority has a different aspect. I think if we're agile enough in our diplomacy, we can at least keep alive the prospect of an engagement with the Palestinian Authority, should that kind of government emerge.

When I interviewed Khalil Shikaki, he was strongly of the feeling that Fatah should come into the government to make it easier for Abbas to pursue his negotiations. What do you think about that?

If I really believed Abu Mazen was going to jump into the road map to pursue negotiations, then Khalil Shikaki is right. A government would need to be as broadly based as possible so as to be a support mechanism across the spectrum. I don't believe that Abbas, after testing the waters, will decide that he can jump into negotiations. And therefore, I'm skeptical at Fatah joining a government after being roundly rejected by the people. The Palestinian people voted for Hamas for a lot of reasons. One of them, and it could be the number one reason, was the mismanagement and corruption of most of the Palestinian Authority, which was run by Fatah. So if I were a Palestinian, I'd be a little disappointed if the first thing that happens is Fatah returns to government without reforming itself. Should Fatah reform itself, well then they probably will do much better in the next election.

While you're on your trip, did the Danish cartoons come up?

That and Hamas, were the only things people talked about. It was really quite extraordinary.

And you went to Qatar, and...

Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Yemen after Israel.

I haven't seen much from the Gulf States on the demonstrations. I guess they must have had some.

Even from Yemen, which really lines up behind some of the radicals, there wasn't much. When you talk as I did with academics and some of the political figures, it's a much more moderate understanding of the dynamic here than what's being whipped up emotionally in the crowds. In the Arab world, nobody likes the idea that these cartoons were drawn. But they also don't like the fact that they're now being exploited by radicals to go out and burn down consulates and embassies.

The other day President Bush said the U.S. would come to Israel's support, militarily, if it were attacked by Iran. I noticed Olmert really didn't want to talk much about Iran. He said he appreciated the support from the United States but he was trying to downplay a lot of the provocative talk that was coming out of Israel a few weeks ago, about Israel being willing to have a preemptive attack or something like that. Where do you think the situation with Iran is right now?

Well, on the diplomacy, I was a little surprised the president made that statement, specifically now at a moment when the international community seems to have finally decided that the Iran file should be referred to the Security Council. That's been the focus of diplomacy until now. To get it there, we had to combine a little bit of blustering about military action with a lot of hesitation in order to prove to people that we wanted to do this diplomatically. That's probably why Olmert doesn't react with more enthusiasm. I think the Israelis are among the chief beneficiaries of this issue being resolved peacefully. They don't want it dumped in their lap if diplomacy fails.

Iran experts often say, "Well, Iran wants the ability to have nuclear weapons but they haven't decided what to do yet." What do you think? Do you think they've decided?

I'm not an Iran expert, but I don't believe what you've just said is accurate. I think they've decided and they are hell-bent on making it happen. It doesn't mean, necessarily, they are hell-bent on starting a nuclear confrontation in the region. But I think they've made a decision that goes back several years, that from their perspective they are in a very difficult position unless they establish some kind of deterrence, not only vis-à-vis the countries to their west, being Israel, but also the countries to their east, India and Pakistan. I think the extension of U.S. power into the region, in Afghanistan and Iraq, which effectively closed a circle around Iran, would have validated such a decision on the part of Iranian decision-makers.

It'll go to the Security Council next month. I guess nobody's holding their breath that any sanctions will be imposed or anything?

If there's no teeth in what the Security Council does, it will hurt Iran that they are taken to the Council. But they will swallow hard and live with it. I think what the Iranians are doing now, they're posturing and they're pounding their chests, saying, "We don't care and we're going to do it anyway." But I think they're watching this very closely. It's not a country that will take lightly being isolated at the Security Council. So just the fact of being in the Council is a problem for them, but it certainly will be a problem if the Council decides to start an escalation of sanctions; you know, something moderate at the beginning which escalates if they don't respond. And I think that might have an impact over time with the Iranians.

Do you think the United States has put enough energy into the Middle East diplomatic efforts? There have been no senior negotiators like some other governments have had. I mean there was no Dennis Ross or Henry Kissinger.

You know, when the Dennis Ross position was created in 1993, you had ideal circumstances for making progress in the peace process. You had the breakthrough of the Madrid peace conference; you had an Israeli election which produced Yitzhak Rabin as the partner. You had already broken the ice with the Syrians and the Palestinians. And you had a new president, Bill Clinton, who could give the energy needed to support a negotiator. So in that situation where conditions were so ripe, it was good to have created a position of chief negotiator. But even there, in that situation, the Clinton administration didn't do much for five or six years, with a chief negotiator.

Now, fast-forward and take the Bush administration. What does it inherit when it walks into office? It inherits an intifada; it inherits Ariel Sharon as the Israeli prime minister, a man that I came to respect, but who was not of the peace camp, if I can put that mildly; it inherits a broken process that failed at Camp David, that failed at Geneva in the Syrian negotiations. So to think that the simple appointment of an envoy by the administration would be the end-all and be-all is absolutely silly.

It has nothing to do with an individual trying to marshal the power of the United States. It has to do with the fact that for the last five years they Palestinians and Israelis went through a terrible blood-letting, and when there were moments in which outside parties including the United States thought there were possibilities to make some progress, the president responded. He sent George Tenet [former CIA director], and [former Secretary of State Colin]Powell went out, and then [General] Tony Zinni, and then the past year we've had James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank head, and Major General Keith Dayton, a security adviser, who replaced Lieutenant General
William Ward. So I think this idea that an individual would have been the panacea I think really displays a great ignorance of what happened over the past five years.

 


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