Q-and-A: Kurtzer on Middle East
After spending 29 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and serving as ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Wilson School professor Daniel Kurtzer joined the University faculty in 2005. On Tuesday, he will deliver a lecture on the latest bout of violence and turmoil in the Middle East. Before the lecture, The Daily Princetonian asked Kurtzer about his views on recent Middle East affairs.
Daily Princetonian: Starting with Israel, what is your reaction to the U.N. vote to grant Palestine recognition? Do you think it will affect Israeli-Palestinian relations?
Daniel Kurtzer: It’s unlikely in the first instance that the vote is going to make much of a difference in practical terms. It so far has not brought the two sides any closer to negotiations. In fact, it may have driven them a bit further apart, at least in the short-term as Israel has reacted rather negatively to the vote. So while it has certainly enhanced the symbolic importance of Palestine in international politics, it hasn’t delivered anything to Palestinians on the ground.
In terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it certainly represents a bit of a downturn. Israel has opposed — and did oppose — the vote, and tried to marshal as much support as it could to oppose it. It didn’t succeed very well — only nine states voted with Israel against the resolution — and as you know, the Israelis took some punitive steps in the aftermath, such as announcing an increase in settlement activity and withholding some funding.
DP: How significant is this vote of recognition and its lopsided outcome, with Americans in the minority dissenting position?
DK: The vote itself doesn’t really change anything on the ground. Palestine, even though it’s now called a non-member state of the U.N., doesn’t have any geographic identity or definition and there is no real sovereignty anywhere for Palestinians so in practical terms I don’t think the vote has made much of a difference. I think it has hurt U.S. diplomacy given the fact that we were as isolated as we were in the vote. A number of European states did abstain, but an overwhelming majority of the U.N. — 138 I think — states voted for.
DP: How have American relations with Israel changed since you were ambassador?
DK: The relations between the United States and Israel have gone in two very different directions. What we would normally call bilateral ties have continued to strengthen over the years. There’s much more security cooperation, intelligence cooperation, strategic understanding. We’ve worked together on missile defense. For example, the Iron Dome system that worked during the Gaza War. So, on the bilateral side, the relationship I think has strengthened from year to year.
Going the opposite direction, though, is U.S.-Israeli understanding of what needs to be done in the peace process; the United States, as you know, tried rather hard to achieve a settlements freeze over the past four years and failed. The government of Israel quite obstinately continues to build settlements and the two sides seem further apart than they’ve ever been.
DP: How unexpected was the Israeli air campaign in Gaza? Do you think it was the appropriate reaction for Israel?
DK: The campaign itself was not unexpected. I would agree with the way President Obama phrased it, that no country can tolerate the launching of missiles against civilian population without responding. Normally you expect the government of the country from which the missile was being launched to do something, but in this case ... Hamas was the one launching the missiles. So in fact one can argue Israel waited longer than maybe other countries would’ve waited to do something. The question really has to be posed as to why Hamas increased the missile fire. There had been something of a ceasefire that had prevailed over the past couple of years and this was largely broken by Hamas starting this past summer.
DP: Moving on to Egypt, how sustainable do you think Mr. Morsi’s presidency is? What do you think prompted his power-grabbing decree, and do you see long-term consequences to his authority as a result of it?
DK: Look, he’s only been in power for six months, and the Egyptian revolution is only two years old. Revolutions normally take a number of years as they unfold, until you can start to see a trend line. In the six months of Morsi’s rule he has been remarkably adept and agile in dealing with the amount of countervailing forces within the society.
On Nov. 22, when he accumulated powers that were outside the oversight of the judiciary, that seems to have galvanized the opposition to join ranks. Until then it had been a fragmented opposition — now there’s a great deal of unity in the opposition. The second stage of this crisis they’ll be moving through is an attempt by Morsi to see a constitutional referendum take place this Saturday [Dec. 15] over a constitutional draft that the opposition believes has been drafted unfairly. So all the agility and deftness which Morsi showed in the past six months is now being tested in this crucible of crisis and it is not at all clear how it is going to come out. On one hand, it looks like he is prepared to moderate his position a little bit with respect to the power grab, but it doesn’t look like he is prepared to defer the constitutional process or to re-open the constitutional process. On the other hand, the opposition has been unwilling to compromise on the question of the constitutional process, and so the real issue is going to be: Will there be a boycott that will make the referendum this coming Saturday not a fair test of the viability of the constitution? So we are very much in the middle of this crisis.
DP: Obviously a lot has happened in Egypt since you were an ambassador there. In your opinion, what has been the most significant change that America should be aware of in its policies toward Egypt?
DK: The most significant change of course is the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak as president and the degree to which there is a new regime in the making in Egypt. Between 1952 and 2011, you essentially had a Praetorian regime. In other words, it looked civilian but it actually was very much a military structure. Each president in Egypt had come from the military, had taken off his uniform to assume power, but it was very much a government backed by the military. You now have the first civilian-elected government and the nature of the Egyptian polity is changing, quite dramatically, both with respect to the elections but also as noted in the constitutional process.
For America, this represents a serious challenge: Can we maintain a strategic relationship with this country and also accommodate ourselves to these political changes that may sharpen differences with us? An example is if the Muslim Brotherhood usurps power. Or is there a contradiction between these which we are going to find difficult to manage in the future?
DP: Where do you think President Obama should focus his attention right now in the Middle East? What do you see as the most promising policies he should pursue?
DK: He doesn’t have the luxury of only focusing on one issue and certainly he doesn’t have the luxury of pivoting to Asia without reference to the Middle East. As we saw during his recent Asia trip, he spent a lot of time on the telephone solving the Gaza crisis, and wasn’t able to give his full attention to the situation in Asia.
There are, I think, at least four issues that will compete for the President’s attention. One is the Iranian ambition to acquire a nuclear weapon. The President has said he won’t allow it, but so far the program isn’t stopped. Second is the crisis in Syria, which given the importance of Syria always contains the potential for spillover, particularly in the last two weeks with the growing concern of the use of chemical weapons. Third is the chronic crisis between Israelis and Palestinians. As we saw in Gaza, it never goes away and if you don’t have a prospect of peace, what you’re fading yourself to is an outbreak of violence periodically. The fourth, longer term issue is the management of the Arab Spring — and when I say management I don’t mean the United States manages the region but how we manage our policy, where we see our interests and how we play them out. So it’s a very full agenda for a region that a lot of Americans are tired of, but it doesn’t go away in terms of our interests.