Former envoy to Israel sees reasons for hope

Former envoy to Israel sees reasons for hope

In talk to federation, Daniel Kurtzer recalls Mideast’s near misses

Daniel Kurtzer with the hosts for the federation’s Maimonides Society’s event, Joyce and Dr. Gerald Hoch.
Daniel Kurtzer with the hosts for the federation’s Maimonides Society’s event, Joyce and Dr. Gerald Hoch.

Identifying himself as an optimist when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Daniel Kurtzer observed recently that each time both sides have sat at a negotiating table, they have come remarkably close to reaching an agreement.

On Dec. 4, the former U.S. ambassador to both Egypt and Israel told an invitation-only audience of 40 donors to the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County that even a determination on Jerusalem is within reach, provided “creative solutions” are implemented to allow both sides to share a non-divided city.

The key, he said, is to strike a bargain that has enough positives to make it attractive for each side. Kurtzer said a deal like this would leave both Israelis and Palestinians with some disappointments, but realizing that they were better off than before it was signed.

The former diplomat spoke at a pre-Hanukka celebration of the Maimonides Society — the federation’s campaign division for health-care professionals — held at the Holmdel home of Dr. Gerald Hoch and his wife, Joyce.

Kurtzer gave a wide-ranging talk that touched upon political change throughout the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the Palestinian desire for statehood. He also analyzed how these developments are shaping and being shaped by U.S. policies and actions.

Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy at Princeton University, called special attention to the January 2011 uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“This has been a very exciting two years, but it may not lead to results that are comfortable for Westerners in general and American Jews in particular,” he said. “The first time the Egyptians were able to participate in a genuine election, 75 percent of them cast ballots for Islamist candidates.”

The speaker described Gamal Abdel Nasser, the seminal Egyptian leader of the 1960s, as a “secular pan-Arabist.” Today, with what Kurtzer called the “crumbling of the Arab state system, we are seeing the rise of pan-Islamism.”

Nevertheless, he expressed appreciation and some “surprise” at the mostly moderate stance taken by President Mohamed Morsi during his first five months in office. Kurtzer also praised Morsi for his “pivotal role” in achieving the late-November cease-fire between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza.

Turning closer to home, Kurtzer said, “By every measurable standard, the relationship between Israel and the United States is stronger than ever.” He acknowledged differences that occasionally capture headlines, such as the administration’s recent criticism of Israel for announcing that settlements would be built at the E-1 site near Ma’ale Adumim. But, he suggested, “such flare-ups have occurred under every president going back at least 40 years.”

American influence in the Middle East can be seen in the fact that “there has not been a single war against Israel started by an Arab state over the past two decades,” he said. “All the attacks have come from extra-governmental, stateless organizations.”

Iranians, meanwhile, have never forgotten the supremacy of the Persian Empire, which in part fuels their drive to again be the region’s dominant player.

Moreover, prior to the downfall of the shah, America actively encouraged Iran to be the area’s policeman.

Once again, “the United States has done Iran a favor by weakening other Arab nations,” Kurtzer said, while the Arab Spring has further tipped the scales to Iran’s advantage.

Now, as Iran pushes toward development of a nuclear bomb, America would love to tighten the reins, but the mechanism is elusive. “Diplomacy has not worked, and sanctions have not worked,” said Kurtzer.

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