The failure to reach a lasting peace with the Palestinians not only dooms the two sides to a future of endless war, but weakens Israel’s ability to fend off perhaps its biggest threat — Iran.
That assessment was offered by former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, Jan. 12 at the Orthodox Forum of Edison and Highland Park.
Speaking at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, Kurtzer said a peace agreement could be used by the Israelis “to build an alliance against Iran” with moderate Arab countries.
An accord, including a two-state solution, would allow the Israelis to focus their full attention on Iran, a country whose nuclear aspirations are being viewed with increasing alarm by its neighbors.
Other countries in the region may be willing to work with Israel on containing their common enemy, said Kurtzer, but are prevented from doing so by the political constraints surrounding the Palestinians.
At a conference he attended more than two years ago, Kurtzer said, “the Arab states made it quite clear the concerns they had were not with Israel, but Iran.”
“They would have been just as happy to work with Israel as not work with Israel,” he said, but were concerned about the reaction such a move would generate on the “Arab street.”
More than 20 years earlier, he said, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin accurately predicted that Iran would become Israel’s greatest security challenge. Kurtzer said it was “imperative that Israel rid itself of the Palestinian issue” if it was to meet the threat.
Kurtzer, a professor of Middle Eastern policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said that while Rabin was “a hard-headed military leader” he was also a pragmatist.
Not only has Rabin’s theory been borne out, if anything, the Middle East has become more unstable with Syria engaged in a bloody civil war, and the “Arab Spring” giving way to turmoil, said Kurtzer.
“It’s all the more imperative, all the more urgent to have a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” he explained.
A Palestinian state would also nullify Palestinian claims of a “right of return” to their pre-1948 homes, “since they can’t have a right to return to what is now recognized as Israel.”
However, with the recent wave of violence and the complicated political landscape, peace seems more unattainable than ever, Kurtzer acknowledged, and likely will require the “robust” involvement of the United States.
Unfortunately, the United States has not been actively involved in the peace process for some time and its political parties are badly split.
“In 30 years of politics I have never experienced a divide in foreign policy as there is today,” said Kurtzer. In 1994, President Bill Clinton “was given space to operate” by congressional Republicans as he negotiated the Oslo accords, a courtesy that “doesn’t exist anymore.”
On the other side, there is the “rough and tumble” of Israeli politics, which may be “too infected to sustain an active peace process” even if “Prime Minster Netanyahu woke up one morning with an epiphany.”
Even the Palestinian leadership in Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is badly fragmented.
“The truth is they need each other but can’t find a way to reconcile with each other,” said Kurtzer. “They can’t find a way because at its basic core Hamas can’t enter into an agreement with a government that recognizes Israel’s right to exist.”
And yet, there are optimistic signs amid the disagreements. In recent months a diverse group of Israelis — including settlers, rabbis, and secular individuals — have been quietly meeting “to find a way to talk to each other,” which, Kurtzer said, he found “extraordinarily encouraging.”