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Resolving conflict in Mideast: Former ambassador to Israel is optimistic

Daniel Kurtzer, whose long Mideast-focused diplomatic career included turns as U.S.

Daniel Kurtzer, whose long Mideast-focused diplomatic career included turns as U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, was in town Sunday to give the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

I interviewed him before the event, then heard the speech, then (along with MinnPost teammate Don Shelby) conducted a post-speech Q-and-A with him in front of the audience of 500 or so. I was very impressed with Kurtzer’s deep, calm understanding of that region of current (and seemingly perpetual) crisis. I regret that a quick Monday morning blog post can’t capture the subtleties, but here are a few of his major insights.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict
The conflict is “resolvable.” Kurtzer didn’t imply that peace is imminent or that a deal will be easy to reach. But he is optimistic. The ingredients of the two-state solution have been on the table for years. The main thing needed for progress is “leaders on all sides who are ready to take manageable risks.”

As far as that goes, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is “about as good as it’s going to get” because he has unwaveringly, for years, renounced violence and favored negotiations, Kurtzer said.

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Kurtzer didn’t say the same about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although he noted that the biggest breakthrough to date on Arab-Israeli peace, the Camp David Accord of 1978, was signed by the hard-liner Prime Minister Menachem Begin.  Kurtzer did, however, slam Netanyahu pretty hard over the contretemps that followed President Obama’s May speech on the Mideast. Netanyahu chose to overreact (Kurtzer called it “a crisis that didn’t have to happen”) to Obama’s formula that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be based on the 1967 boundaries with land swaps.

Netanyahu  touched “the third rail of Israeli politics” by getting into a public spat with Obama over the formulation, including a disrespectful Oval Office meeting. “You don’t like to see your president talked to that way in his own office,” Kurtzer said.

Kurtzer, it should be noted, who has retired from the diplomatic service and now teaches at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, publicly supported Obama during the 2008 campaign and advised the president-elect during the transition. But he also criticized Obama’s Mideast policy for spending the first year and a half of the term arguing with the Israelis about settlement policy instead of finding ways to make progress on other peace issues.

During his prepared talk to the JCRC, Kurtzer offered the audience of mostly pro-Israel Americans  an unexpected window onto the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace. In 2002, and again in 2007, the Arab League adopted a comprehensive peace proposal to settle the conflict.

In Kurtzer’s view, the Arab peace initiative:

1. Represented “a cosmic change in Arab policy,” from its former insistence that the solution was for Israel to cease to exist, to a willingness to normalize relations with Israel within its pre-1967 borders.

2. Was based on a pan-Arab conclusion that the problem of Israel was minor compared with the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran posed to the entire Arab state system.   

The Arab peace proposal includes several provisions that would be considered deal-breakers on the Israeli side. Kurtzer said it would obviously have to be negotiated further. But if he is right about the “cosmic change” that it represents, it might mean that a peace deal could be struck not just between the Israelis and Palestinians, but between Israel and the Arab world in general.

On the ‘Arab Spring’
Kurtzer doesn’t pretend to know why this is all happening now, instead of 10 years ago or 10 years from now. He was recently in Egypt and said that even the organizers of the Tahrir Square movement were shocked that things moved so quickly to the Mubarak resignation.

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(By the way, since Kurtzer, as U.S. ambassador, had constant contact with Mubarak, I asked him what it was like to be the deliverer of constantly ignored U.S. suggestions that he move the Egyptian dictatorship in a democratic direction. He said it wasn’t like Mubarak “would put his hands over his ears” when the message was delivered, but would calmly explain that he understood what it took to make Egypt work, and the American vision wasn’t it. )

Kurtzer said he could imagine genuine progress in a democratic direction in Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries in which the autocrats stepped down peacefully.

But in the four countries where the old regimes are fighting back — Yemen, Libya, Syria and Bahrain — he doesn’t hold out much hope for a good transition. If the dictator decides to fight back and if the military is willing to follow orders even when the orders require them to kill civilians, the odds favor survival of the dictators.

He specifically said that the moment may have passed for a possible Egypt-like outcome in Syria, because the military is sticking with the Assad regime and is clearly willing to shed civilian blood. In Libya, he said, the prospects are “exponentially” worse for a good outcome because during the Qaddafi decades, no basis, no precursor, no building blocks for a transition to democracy has been allowed to develop. Even if Qaddafi is forced out, Kurtzer said, Libya would face tribal warfare.

The third category of Arab states are the monarchies, Kurtzer said, which have considerably more legitimacy in their countries than the non-royal dictators. He noted the recent decision of the Gulf Cooperation Council to welcome Jordan and Morocco as new members. This turns the GCC into less of a club of countries that border the Persian Gulf and more of a club of Arab monarchies banding together to defend monarchism as an institution in the region.