February 15, 2006: A moment with...
Daniel Kurtzer has seen the Middle Eastern conflict from both sides, as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 and to Israel from 2001 to 2005. Recently appointed the University’s first S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School, he discussed current events with PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83. At the time they spoke, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remained in a coma and was not expected to govern again, and Palestinians had not yet voted in parliamentary elections.
What will be Ariel Sharon’s legacy?
I think it’s yet to be written fully because the real question is whether or not the disengagement from Gaza would have been followed by a unilateral disengagement in most of the West Bank. There were many indications that Sharon was heading in that direction, including in conversations that I had with him before I left my posting last September. I think his legacy is going to be debated for some time to come.
Politically, what comes next for Israel?
The center party, Kadima, which Sharon created, seems to be doing well in the polls and if that continues, then the party at the center of the political spectrum is likely to dominate the scene for the period ahead. For the United States, that’s a good thing because the people in Kadima are experienced in politics. I think we’d find it easy to work with them.
Who speaks for the Palestinians today?
That’s the question. Yasser Arafat clearly represented, in symbolic ways, all Palestinians. But even he found that there were many fissures within that society — one of which was between the people who had grown up, as he and the current leader, Mahmoud Abbas, did, in the Palestinian diaspora, as opposed to those who grew up in the West Bank and Gaza and had lived with Israel and gotten to know [Israelis] both as occupiers and as neighbors. The second fissure is between the secular nationalists, such as Fatah, which was Arafat’s movement, and the Islamic fundamentalist militants like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The militants are now carrying out acts of terror in defiance of what the Palestinian Authority wants.
Is a peace process possible before these splits on the Palestinian side play themselves out?
I think a bilateral peace process is probably not possible. Before Israel entered into a negotiation, they would want to see who is representing Palestinians, whether it’s people like Hamas, who are calling for their destruction, or people like Fatah who, while militant, they can deal with.
Is the “security wall” the Israelis are building sustainable?
If you’re thinking of a wall that is forever, the answer is no. Walls have never worked in history and this one won’t, either. If you’re thinking of the wall as a short- and medium-term tactic over the next five to 10 years to reduce the threat of terrorism, it has already proven effective. That gives the Israeli leadership the opportunity to play with some diplomacy. I was in Israel through almost the entire period of the second intifada and you couldn’t even talk about diplomacy to anybody in that population, they were so beset by terrorism every day. When the wall started being constructived and the volume of terror came down, all of a sudden the peace process became a subject of public debate again.
Are the Palestinians producing a Gandhi or a Mandela who might lead a nonviolent path toward statehood?
Not yet, no. There are almost no voices among the Palestinians who are talking about a nonviolent struggle. The closest you get is Abbas, who decries the use of violence, but he doesn’t offer an alternative pathway that would draw people behind him and away from terrorism.
Is democracy possible in the Arab world?
There’s no reason why it isn’t. It hasn’t flourished anywhere yet, but that’s just an excuse to not try. But I’m a firm believer that we don’t export democracy. Once you go in and occupy a country beyond the immediate military needs for going there in the first place, like in Iraq, you are saying to people, “We’re going to stay here until you become democrats.” And I don’t think that works.
Can the West persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program?
I don’t think we’ve exhausted the possibility of doing so, but we’re coming close to the end unless the Europeans decide that they’re going to add a little muscle to their diplomacy. If this issue stays in the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has no real enforcement powers, then diplomacy won’t succeed. The Iranians have shown that they’re prepared to thumb their noses at the IAEA.