Kurtzer, 66, served as United States Ambassador to Egypt from 1999 to 2001 and to Israel from 2001–2005.
He is also an Orthodox Jew whose appointment to the senior posting in Cairo during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak elicited hostile responses in Egypt’s popular media, including anti-Semitic caricatures.
“I’ve chosen to talk in Cairo about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because here it is possible to have a discussion about it,” said Kurtzer.
“Unfortunately in Washington much of that conversation has been stifled over the years by a kind of consensus that runs the gambit from its impossible to achieve it’s too dangerous to even try,” Kurtzer lamented.
“A third intifada is inevitable without some progress towards resolution of the conflict,” Kurtzer warned his audience at the American University in Cairo.
“Unfortunately in Washington much of that conversation has been stifled"
“Status quos are not static in this region, and at some point the pressure builds up – you either relieve that pressure by showing people there is an avenue to reach agreement, or the situation explodes.”
KURTZER now serves on AUC’s Board of Trustees and the institution is commonly considered as the premiere center of private higher education in Egypt.
The former ambassador identified Washington’s muted response to continued Israeli settlement activity as the major factor impeding a two state breakthrough.
“You can’t aspire to a territorial outcome while at the same time settling the territory on which the other side is eventually going to exercise sovereignty over – it makes no sense. It sends exactly the wrong signal to the other side that negotiations are a sham,” said Kurtzer who believes that the administration could jolt Israeli complacency on the issue by excluding goods produced in the West Bank settlements from the benefits of the free trade agreement with the United States.
Kurtzer was part of the George H. W. Bush policy team which obtained concessions from former Israeli Prime Minister Shamir to refrain from using American loan guarantees to build housing for newly arriving Russian immigrants in the West Bank.
“If the President of the United States came along and simply wondered out loud about why we are providing free trade benefits to the settlements, and all of the sudden the question were raised, that would probably be enough to move the numbers,” Kurtzer asserted.
EGYPTIAN novelist and diplomat Ezzeldine Fishere expressed admiration for Kurtzer’s persistent pursuit of a negotiated outcome even as he articulated a widely shared Arab view that the forces in Israel, opposed to compromise, are too firmly entrenched to move on the core issues.
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“At what point are you ready to declare that the two-state solution is dead,” asked Fishere who spent a year in Tel Aviv as Egypt’s political attaché and is currently a member of the Liberal Arts faculty at AUC.
Kurtzer responded that it was too early to give up attempts at working out an agreement because in his view, the United States has still not mustered all its negotiation efforts to “get the diplomacy right”.
“John Kerry started out quite positively in his diplomacy because he didn’t just try to get the two sides back to the negotiating table, he too tried to and create a kind of infrastructure as safety net for the talks,” said Kurtzer.
Kerry’s “architecture” included getting foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to come to Washington to reiterate the Arab Peace Initiative and appointing General John Allen to pinpoint security issues and propose solutions.
“He (General Allen) was there to provide answers when Israel says, ‘We need defensible borders’, ” said Kurtzer.
“I’ve chosen to talk in Cairo about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because here it is possible to have a discussion about it”
“But at the critical moment – when the two sides had proved unable to reach an agreement on terms of reference, the United States walked away rather than using that moment to put forth an American idea – or even better, to bring in the international community and put forward a security council resolution, ” said Kurtzer describing the collapse of the Kerry initiative.
DESPITE his focus on American and Israeli shortcomings in returning the two state framework to viability, Kurtzer challenged some common assumptions voiced by AUC graduate students during the audience question period.
“This summer’s war in Gaza was not an Israeli attempt to regain control of territory or of Palestinian gas resources in the Mediterranean,” said Kurtzer.
“In the past, the United States and Egypt may have had different views of Hamas, we don’t have those differences anymore,” he noted.
“Hamas is now seen by a growing segment of opinion here as a terrorist organization and not just as an organization that is threatening Israel but also the security and stability of Egypt as well.”
The former ambassador also questioned the effectiveness of BDS if the intended outcome was to change Israeli thinking.
“If you are going to try and punish, you might also think about incentivizing, maybe there are carrots here even if you are contemplating using sticks.”
“At the risk of rankling some people in the audience, I believe that if there were more participation in civil society initiatives bringing Arabs and Israelis together even before final status issues were resolved, it would be a lot easier for negotiators to win political support for their efforts.”