MONTREAL — It used to be that Israel simply wanted recognition as a legitimate country from the Palestinians.
But now that Israel also demands acceptance from them as a “Jewish state,” argues former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, don’t hold your breath.
For Kurtzer, an observant Jew and now a lecturer at Princeton University, that’s not a realistic scenario since “Israelis [themselves] haven’t decided what we are, what a Jewish state is,” he said at a recent talk at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim.
“Why are we asking Palestinians to mouth words in a situation where we haven’t identified [a Jewish state] for ourselves?”
Kurtzer also quoted Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas: “We’re supposed to recognize a state, not the characteristics of a state.”
Despite ubiquitous pessimism by what seems like the whole world over the state of the “peace process,” said Kurtzer, who served in Israel from 2001 to 2005 (and in Egypt from 1997 to 2001), he remained comparatively optimistic, since maintaining the status quo indefinitely was not, in his view, tenable – a “dream not based in reality.”
The peace process may be perceived of as “dead,” he said, “but it is not yet dead and buried.”
Jokingly, he called the Middle East, “the gift that keeps on giving.”
More seriously, he described the current situation as a “mutually hurting stalemate,” and the peace process as “sporadic,” “inconsistent” and lacking in essential “strategy.”
“Is it hard [to resolve]?” Kurtzer asked. “Yes, but that’s what we [diplomats] do for a living.”
“We’re at a moment in history where the peace process is being called into question, and we need a new paradigm.”
Kurtzer was hopeful because, for one thing, a durable – if cold – peace has endured between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, “so in the four cases where Israel has yielded territory, the others being the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, it has worked in two cases. It is hard, but it can work.”
Kurtzer gave a detailed historical overview of the long and discouraging history of the peace process and noted how close the adversarial sides have come to finding a solution everyone could actually live with.
The latest one was in the latter part of 2008, when then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas hammered out a set of negotiating principles that looked like a modus vivendi toward peace.
But Olmert was by then a lame-duck leader facing corruption charges, Israel was to go into Gaza early the next year as a response to persistent shelling and everything fizzled out.
That’s regrettable, Kurtzer said, “because Israelis and Palestinians understand each other far better than outsiders.”
Right now, said Kurtzer, the main “spoiler” is the terrorist group Hamas, which is bent on never letting peace happen. All other relevant parties, Kurtzer said, recognize Israel – at the very least – “by implication.”
On other Middle East issues, Kurtzer said the so-called Arab Spring placed the United States in an awkward position since as a stalwart strategic ally of Egypt under president Hosni Mubarak, it still needed Egypt, but also supported hoped-for democratization of the country.
A more ominous situation, he said, involves Iran, whose quest for nuclear capability “is one of the most frightening and dangerous prospects around.”