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Apr. 4, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 10


Is an Israel-Palestine peace deal still ­possible? Dan Kurtzer says yes

By Griff Witte ’00
Published in the April 4, 2012, issue

Professor Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Egypt and Israel.
Professor Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Egypt and Israel.

In late June of 1967, a recent high school graduate named Daniel Kurtzer traveled to Israel for the first time. The trip was a gift from his parents, and it marked the end of a quiet, middle-class childhood in Elizabeth, N.J., where Kurtzer had been a standout student at the local Jewish day school. 

Israel had just emerged from six days of war that had reshaped the Middle East. Israeli forces had thoroughly routed the militaries of three neighboring Arab states — Jordan, Egypt, and Syria — and took control of vast new territory. Kurtzer had had to delay his trip because of the fighting, but once in Israel he found a country euphoric with victory. Jerusalem — a city that had been divided by razor wire and scarred by snipers for 19 years — suddenly was reunited. 

The young American volunteered to help clean the accumulated debris from a grand stone amphitheater atop Mount Scopus, in Jerusalem, that had been stuck in a desolate no-man’s-land for the better part of two decades. For days, he picked up trash and scrubbed the steps, working in the shadow of buildings that had been decimated by war. When the great New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein led a concert at the amphitheater in early July in celebration of Jerusalem’s reunification, Kurtzer sneaked in by pretending to deliver flowers. He was among the hundreds who listened in rapt silence to the strains of Isaac Stern’s violin, and who looked out upon the Judean hills at a land of almost limitless possibility. 

But Kurtzer soon grew troubled. That summer, he visited the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — both of which had been captured by Israeli forces — and saw devastation in the eyes of the people who lived there. “If you only looked at the Israelis, it was celebration,” Kurtzer recalls. “You looked at the Palestinians, and you saw people who were defeated. This thing wasn’t going to work.”

To Kurtzer, there was only one sensible answer: partition. But nearly half a century later, that sensible answer remains maddeningly elusive, lost in a tangle of competing peace plans and violent realities. Kurtzer became hooked during that 1967 visit on the idea of a resolution to the Middle East’s conflicts, and he remains hooked today. “It looks so solvable,” he says. “And then you get into it, and it’s hard.”

Kurtzer, balding, bespectacled, and compact at 62, knows this better than almost anyone. He’s been U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, and spent decades at the State Depart­ment as an integral player in U.S. efforts to forge a resolution.

But each of those efforts has failed, and now the consensus in Washington is that the peace process is dead. After a burst of activity in the first year of the Obama administration, U.S. initiatives to convince the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms on a deal have ground to almost nothing. The time, policymakers and academics agree, simply is not right: The United States can’t want peace more than the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. Attention is focused on Iran, not on Palestine. And besides, in an election year, a peace deal is a political nonstarter. Or so says the Washington consensus.

Kurtzer hates the Washington consensus, and he uses every opportunity from his perch as the S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School to fight against it. He pens op-ed columns proposing ways to get the talks moving again. He gives lectures in Dodds Auditorium proclaiming that all is not lost. In trips to the Middle East with his students, he instills in them a sense of the possible. Along the way, he butts heads with old friends and colleagues from the trenches of Mideast diplomacy who have lost faith in what is known universally as “the process.” 

Kurtzer is, by the accounts of those who know him, an eminently reasonable man. When he arrived as U.S. ambassador in Egypt — the first Jew in that job — and then in Israel, he was viewed with deep suspicion. But as time went on, he was sitting for long talks with everyone from Muslim Brother­hood leaders to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Kurtzer listens. He calmly analyzes. He speaks in sober, measured tones, and comes up with imaginative yet practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

“He’s extremely fair-minded and creative in his sense of how to pursue a genuine strategy,” says U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. “There’s no one for whom I have greater personal and professional respect.” 

And yet Kurtzer has chosen to spend his career working in a part of the world where reason is often in short supply, and where old grudges usually triumph over necessary compromises. Perhaps Daniel Kurtzer’s most unreasonable belief is that the conflict in the Middle East — the solution to which has been apparent, in its basic outlines, for decades — can still be solved.

It’s an unseasonably warm Feb. 6 in Princeton, and Kurtzer is feeling upbeat. The New York Giants — his favorite team — won the Super Bowl the night before, overcoming the odds to defeat the New England Patriots in the game’s final minute. Possibility is in the air. And Dodds Auditorium is packed. The listeners have come to hear Kurtzer and Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman who now heads a think tank, answer a simple question: Is Middle East peace possible?

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