Daniel Kurtzer is the progressive choice to be President-elect Barack Obama’s envoy for Arab-Israeli issues, as he’s considered more even-handed than his presumed competitor for the job, veteran peace-processor Dennis Ross, though former Bush 41 and 43 official Richard Haass has emerged as a new prospect. It’s been reported this morning that Ross has some kind of portfolio, possibly focusing more on Iran, and so the prospect that Kurtzer will have influence in the Obama administration is enough to pack the U.S. Institute of Peace’s panel on Israel-Palestine and the prospects for peace. Well, that and the ongoing war in Gaza.
The panel starts off with the disturbing news that rockets have been fired on Israel from Lebanon, though they’re not presumed to have come from Hezbollah. Moderator Sam Lewis says Kurtzer is “constrained” in his remarks because he’s still mentioned as a candidate for an important diplomatic position. But Kurtzer — who, if I’m not mistaken, is the only diplomat ever to serve as ambassador to Israel and Egypt — holds forth on the regional picture for peacemaking beyond the Gaza war. “What are the goals the various protagonists [in the Gaza war] are pursuing?” he asks, and he says “no one” has a good answer. Post-conflict, “there will be an unacceptable situation on the ground, no matter how this particular phase” wraps up, because Israel and Hamas are like “that Monty Python sketch with the 100-meter dash with runners for no sense of direction.” As a result of this ambiguity, Kurtzer sees little likelihood that either side will be satisfied with a ceasefire. “You have the goals and objectives of these two players moving in different directions,” making it hard to “lead to a conclusion where a mutuality of interest will emerge from it.”
So the question is whether “there is a mutuality of interest in the larger Arab-Israeli” conflict that the United States can work toward. He holds as self-evident that resolving the conflict “is a core American interest, not a favor we do for the parties.” If so, then it’s incumbent on the U.S. to bring about “a concrete end” to the conflict, not just between Israel and Palestine but between Israel and Syria. “Exploratory phases or consultative phases can probably can be telescoped” so that “parties can actually confront tough decisions” about the substance of peace — land, water, borders, etc. “The diplomatic toolbox is not a mystery anymore,” he says.
But does Palestine need to have one leadership, not split between Hamas and Fatah? Kurtzer thinks it “would be impossible to implement an agreement” if not, but “I don’t think we have fully tested the proposition” of negotiating an agreement with the Palestinian leadership — he doesn’t come out and say Fatah, but it’s probably what he means — and then subjecting it to a Palestinian national referendum. Clearly, he’s thought about working around Hamas.
“One cannot ignore the fact that this chessboard is populated by people who have to endure [this crisis] every day,” Kurtzer says, pointing out how Israel considers it absolutely unacceptable to come under constant rocket bombardment from Palestinian areas and how Palestine considers it absolutely unacceptable for Israeli reprisals to carry such “civilian cost.”
Kurtzer couches the position of the Obama administration in conditional terms, but it’s not unreasonable to interpret his remarks as saying that the incoming administration sees it this way. To stick with the Monty Python analogy, Kurtzer’s essentially going “wink-wink-nudge-nudge-knowwhatImean.”