Daniel Kurtzer served as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 and as the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001-2005. Throughout his career, he played a key role in formulating and executing American policy towards the Middle East peace process and served as a member of the U.S. peace team that in 1991 convened the Madrid Peace Conference. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2005 and is now a lecturer and professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton University. He spoke to The Jewish Week Tuesday about the Palestinian statehood bid and other key diplomatic issues facing Israel.
Q: The United States has vowed to veto a Palestinian request to the United Nations Security Council for what amounts to a unilateral declaration of independence, so what might the Palestinians really achieve by alienating the U.S.?
A: Their motivation was not to alienate the U.S., and the Palestinians would prefer that not to happen. They are trying to win full membership in the UN and hoping against hope that the U.S. changes its mind at the last minute to avoid a veto. It’s a classic case of chicken. The two sides are squaring off and neither appears to be backing away.
Congress has threatened to cut off nearly $500 million in aid to the Palestinians if they go through with their statehood bid. Would you support that?
No. I think as important as it is to do diplomacy right before the UN gambit plays itself out, it is equally important not to make it worse. Both the U.S. and Israel have to respond carefully so as not to exacerbate a problematic situation. Cutting off aid represents a gratuitous punishment. We have invested a lot in the Palestinian Authority, including doing excellent work in building up their security capacity. It would make no sense to end that now.
There are Israeli Knesset members who are pushing for Israel to respond by annexing part or all of the West Bank. How would you view such a move?
It would be shortsighted to take decisions now that have not been taken for more than 40 years — decisions that have very significant consequences. Annexation of these territories would be as dangerous and counterproductive as the Palestinian move on the UN side, therefore I hope it is avoided.
What should be done?
Israel should review what [President Barack] Obama said on May 19 and perhaps it could accept that as a starting point for negotiation. Similarly, I think the Palestinians ought to review it. Their rejections are not cast in stone and it would be a useful formula to get them talking again.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a New York Times op-ed in May wrote that Palestine’s admission to the UN would pave the way for the Palestinians to pursue claims against Israel in the various bodies of the UN, such as the International Court of Justice.
That is a real danger. I don’t want to minimize it and I can only hope it is a threat they will not pursue. But that course of action is now available to the Palestinians because any Arab country in the UN can do it. It was already done in an Arab appeal on the security barrier, but it is a terrible course of action.
Earlier this month the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was ransacked. How widespread is the Egyptian hatred of Israel and of the Jewish people?
I think we have known for quite some time that there is a great deal of animosity on the Arab street. Arab media have been filled for years with very negative pictures and stereotypes that contribute to anti-Israel feeling and anti-Semitism, and Arab governments have done nothing to push back against it.
It’s said that this attitude is not confined to Egypt but widespread in the Arab world.
It’s pretty bad all over and it is exacerbated every day by unfair and biased media coverage. Whatever Palestinians do is explained away and whatever Israel does is explained in the worst light.
The ransacking of Israel’s Embassy in Cairo, the decision of Turkey to virtually cut off all diplomatic relations with Israel and now the Palestinian move at the UN — all these developments seem to be isolating Israel in the international community.
In the case of Turkey, you had a friend and even an ally who has now turned 180 degrees against Israel. In Egypt, there is a question about its future relationship with Israel. But I would not go so far as to say Israel is isolated. Support in the U.S. is strong and healthy and in some European countries there is a greater willingness to criticize Israel but not ostracize it. So I wouldn’t get panicky or carried away, but it is a problem that needs to be dealt with.