Middle East Peace Efforts Still Alive, Although Situation in Region ’Looks Pretty Dreary’

Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt, says the negotiating atmosphere in the Middle East is looking "pretty dreary," but that he sees signs of hope in the Obama administration’s efforts to advance progress.

April 23, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Daniel C. Kurtzer, who served as ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush, and to Egypt under President Bill Clinton, says the negotiating atmosphere in the Middle East is looking "pretty dreary," but that he sees signs of hope in the Obama administration’s efforts to advance progress. Kurtzer says he believes President Obama, by inviting Egytpian, Palestinian, and Israeli leaders to Washington,"really means it when he says that he wants to try to advance progress." Kurtzer also says that more attention should be paid to the Arab League’s Middle East peace initiative, which could be the basis for an overall peace accord.

President Obama announced the other day that he had invited the Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders to Washington next month for separate talks. The news did not generate much interest, in part because of a general pessimism about the outlook for Middle East progress. What’s your impression? Is there any life left in the stated goal of the Obama administration--and also the Bush administration--for a two-state Palestinian-Israeli agreement?

I’m actually positively impressed that there seems to be more life in it, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, than a dispassionate review of the situation might have indicated. If you look at the situation, it looks pretty dreary: an Israeli government that might be challenging to work with in terms of its composition; and the Palestinian leadership remains divided, both geographically and politically. There is also an absence of any movement between the Israelis and Palestinians that would suggest a strong desire to get back to negotiations. Yet the administration continues to take active steps: the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace and the various trips that Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have taken to the region. And now the president has invited the leaders of the region to the White House. In the context of what the president has started to do in the first seventy or eighty days of his administration, this suggests that he really means it when he says that he wants to try to advance progress. So, I don’t think this is a business-as-usual invitation to the leaders in the region. The president really wants to hear from them how they intend to move forward toward a conflict resolution process.

I would be a little bit cautious regarding what seems to be the new vogue in peace-process thinking that substitutes the traditional thinking about "land for peace" with the idea of "land for strategic realignment."

There have been some reports indicating that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more concerned about the Iran situation than about dealing with the Palestinians. Recently, the Israeli concerns seem to be matched by Egypt in the wake of allegations that Iran, through Hezbollah, planted agents in the Sinai to carry out terrorist attacks. Is that Iran situation overshadowing the Palestinian one?

There is reason to be concerned, and that reason is not limited to Israel. Surely, the Israelis feel vulnerable given the geographic proximity and the threats that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadeinejad has made, but it’s of great concern to Europe and to the United States as well. When Obama was a candidate, he indicated that this is a U.S. security problem, not one limited to Israel. It’s fair to look at this situation both independently of the peace process but also in relationship to the peace process. Whether or not there are active negotiations between Israel and Palestinians or Israel and Syrians, Iran’s hegemonic pretensions in this region really need to be on everyone’s agenda.

On the other hand, even if you have to deal with this issue independently of the peace process, the Iranians have indicated that they have an interest in trying to influence the peace process in negative ways. The presence of Hezbollah cells in Sinai and the threat that has posed not just to Egypt but to Israel, through enhanced smuggling of arms to Gaza, would indicate that the Iranians may be interested in undermining the chances of successful negotiations. These are complex interwoven issues which have to be dealt with in a rather nuanced but very aggressive manner. And in the first instance, the diplomatic engagement on both tracks--the Iranian and the Arab-Israeli peace process issues--really is called for.

The other issue that’s a possibility is the Israeli-Syrian track, which during the Clinton administration was seen as an alternative to the Israeli-Palestinian one. The Israelis have been interested in it recently as a way of defusing the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Do you think the Netanyahu government is interested in taking that approach again?

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Israeli government will certainly look at the question of whether Syria’s possible regional realignment can become an outcome of a peace process. I don’t think, however, that the resolution of issues between Israel and Syria will solve this problem. Those issues are manageable. The question of borders and waters and security and political relations are not simple but they are resolvable. The real strategic question for Israel is whether or not a peace process which leads to the return of the Golan Heights to Syria will lead to a change in Syrian behavior in regional terms. That’s a strategic issue for Israel to look at, and I’m sure it’s part of their review. That said, I would be a little bit cautious regarding what seems to be the new vogue in peace-process thinking that substitutes the traditional thinking about "land for peace" with the idea of "land for strategic realignment."

King Abdullah of Jordan brought to Washington this week the Arab League’s latest formula for peace, which is a refinement of the Saudi initiative of 2002. That in short calls for recognition of Israel by the Arab states in return for Israel’s going back to the borders preceding the 1967 war, allowing Palestinians displaced in the 1948 war to return to Israel, and a division of Jerusalem to allow it to be the capital of a Palestinian state. Is this initiative something that should be taken seriously? Is it meant as a show of Arab unity against Iran?

The Arab initiative is more than just the emergence of an alliance against Iran. It also in some respects is a reflection of Arab opinion that the Arab-Israeli peace process needs to be resolved in order to allow the Arab world to focus attention on Iran’s strategic objectives in the region. In other words, the Arab world has two imperatives here: They would like to see the Arab-Israeli conflict resolved; and they would like to be able to deal with Iran. What the Arab initiative does is offer an opportunity for progress on the peace process to, in a sense, make the agenda with Iran that much easier to deal with. The Arab initiative demands very serious attention because of the cosmic shift that it represents in Arab world opinion.

What do you mean?

The Arab initiative demands very serious attention because of the cosmic shift that it represents in Arab world opinion.

It has transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict from a 1948 issue, i.e. a problem of recognizing the very existence of the state of Israel, to a 1967 issue, which is a problem of dealing with occupied territories. That is an enormous shift in Arab political thinking. There are problems in the Arab initiative for Israel. There are some questions relating to the so-called [Palestinian] right of return and issues relating to Jerusalem, but in sum total, as an Arab position, it’s an initiative that demands serious attention. And what’s interesting now is that within the Israeli cabinet there is a lobbyist for this initiative: Ehud Barak [the defense minister and leader of the Labor Party]. I don’t want to overstate the case, but Barak has been arguing publicly that Israel needs to look at this issue very carefully and may find it beneficial to create a regional approach to the peacemaking process that allows the Arab initiative to become a kind of support structure for what happens between Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and Syrians.

What is the U.S. government’s position on that initiative?

After 2002, when it was first articulated, there was no position. The Bush administration seemed to not have noticed it. In 2007 when it was reiterated, the administration again didn’t seem to notice it. The Obama administration has at least taken notice, and there have been a couple of references both from the president and the secretary of state that indicate it’s useful or worth studying. These are careful words that have been used to describe it, so it appears that the administration understands the importance of incorporating it in some way but I don’t think as of yet there’s a specific strategic approach to its use.

Of course from an Israeli point of view, the dealbreaker in the initiative is the so-called right of return issue. Has there been much study given to how to negotiate that issue?

I don’t have the wording of the initiative in front of me, but if one looks at it, the Arab text is quite nuanced in reference to [UN General Assembly] Resolution 194, which incorporates what the Palestinians assert is the right of return. If I recall it correctly the initiative talks about an agreed outcome based on Resolution 194, which allows for some wiggle room with respect to negotiating it. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be a demand of prior acceptance of the right of return as a way of solving the problems. This requires further study. You have to look at the Arabic text and you’d want to look at the speeches that were given at the various Arab summits, but it seems to be a much more nuanced language on this question than we had seen previously.

There’s been a tremendous amount of academic work on the refugee issue and it is clearly one of the daunting problems in this process, but I don’t think it’s an insurmountable problem. It’s been addressed in negotiations as far back as the Madrid Conference in 1991. Seven or eight years later it was addressed in the Taba negotiations, which used the Clinton parameters as a basis for discussions. And various groups have done some very interesting and detailed work, so that we’re not starting from scratch when we look at this issue.

The other issue hanging out there is that you can’t really negotiate much about the Palestinian issues unless you have a Palestinian negotiating team that represents the Palestinians. But there doesn’t seem any likelihood any time soon of Hamas or Fatah getting their act together, does it?

In some ways, that’s the most immediately pressing procedural issue and it obviously has ramifications beyond process. As part of the Annapolis negotiating process stemming from the November 2007 conference, the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians said that there would be negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel and that as a result of those negotiations the outcome would be subjected to a referendum that would allow the entire Palestinian nation to articulate its opinion. I don’t know if that’s still on the table as a possibility. Will Mahmoud Abbas see himself as having enough power to proceed into negotiations with a Netanyahu government or will he await the results of national reconciliation or national unity talks that are still being held? Interestingly, Secretary of State Clinton, in her Senate testimony yesterday, foreclosed the option of the United States talking to Hamas in the context of a unity government unless Hamas meets the conditions of the international community that Hamas recognize the right of Israel to exist. So the U.S. position on this has not changed and remains very much focused on the Palestinian Authority and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] as the authorized negotiating partners.