Professor Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Egypt and Israel.
Professor Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Egypt and Israel.
PHOTO: PETER MURPHY

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?

Kurtzer believes the answer is yes, but he starts with the reasons why many insist otherwise: The Israelis and the Palestinians are moving in opposite directions, hardening their bargaining positions. The region has been destabilized by the Arab uprisings, unleashing an undercurrent of anti-Israeli sentiment. The United States has pulled its troops from Iraq, diminishing American leverage. President Obama has signaled that his focus is on expanding economic opportunities in Asia, rather than solving the ancient conflicts of the Middle East. And above all, Kurtzer notes, any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves “dealing with constituencies that have black and white views on these issues, not gray.”

So there are obstacles. But Kurtzer closes with a counterintuitive jab at the Washington consensus. He and Wexler intend to prove, he says, “that it’s not too hard, that peace is possible, and that we can want peace at least as much as the parties themselves.”

And then, on a screen above Wexler as he runs through a slick PowerPoint presentation full of history, maps, and data, peace happens. 

On a map of Israeli and Palestinian lands, lines that have hardened over decades into steep walls and menacing barbed wire shift effortlessly east or west. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in West Bank settlements suddenly are inside Israel proper as areas outside the 1967 boundaries are absorbed. The Palestinians get parts of present-day Israel in return. The Israeli military occupation of the West Bank ends, but Israel wins enough guarantees from the Palestinian leadership that security isn’t compromised. The United States and other international powers make sure that both sides keep their promises. The process requires major concessions and tough choices. Yet, in the end, Israel and Palestine are both nations with permanent borders, existing side by side. In the Land of PowerPoint, it all looks possible. 

   Video: "Is Middle East peace possible?" panel at the Wilson School

Kurtzer knows it isn’t that easy. On the ground in the Middle East, those clean lines become blurry, and even the most logical of proposals becomes a mess of competing historical claims and deeply ingrained enmity. But his point is clear: What unfolded on the screen was based on real plans that have been offered by one or both of the parties. The differences between the two sides are bridgeable. And, crucially, the United States has a role to play in forming the bridge. 

“Nobody has quite found that mix of resolve, determination, and smarts to put together a peace process that can work,” Kurtzer says. “I happen to think there is a strategy that might work.” 

Perhaps some are convinced he’s right. But when the presentation is over and the crowd spills out into the evening chill of Scudder Plaza, an elderly man who had been in the audience mutters: “We’ve got no business in the Middle East. Let them sort it out.”

Kurtzer hears that argument, in a more sophisticated form, from some of his closest friends. Aaron David Miller, for one, describes Kurtzer as his “teacher and mentor in the art and science of diplomacy.” The two men worked side by side for years as American negotiators, leading countless rounds of haggling and cajoling in the name of peace. But Miller has lost faith. Kurtzer, Miller says, “is convinced that any conflict created by men and women can be resolved by men and women.” Miller is not. He famously penned a 2010 piece in Foreign Policy magazine declaring that the outsized American role in trying to reach a Mideast accord not only was hopeless, it was counterproductive. “We were part of the problem. We thought we could fix things and we couldn’t,” Miller says. “I’m tired of seeing America fail.”

The Miller view has won out for now in Washington, despite Kurtzer’s best efforts. During Obama’s 2008 campaign for president, Kurtzer was among the future president’s advisers. Kurtzer helped write a speech that Obama delivered at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that year in which the junior senator from Illinois advocated a robust role for the United States in helping the Israelis and the Palestinians cut a deal. 

But once in office, Obama’s efforts floundered. He tried to force Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to an indefinite freeze on construction in West Bank settlements. Netanyahu refused. Obama blinked. Ever since, the process has been stuck in neutral. Kurtzer lauds Obama for saying the right things, but criticizes his administration for resorting to tactics when a broader strategy was needed. At a time when the United States should have taken a tough line with both sides, it withdrew instead, he says. 

“I was raised in a diplomatic environment in which you don’t necessarily take no for an answer,” Kurtzer says. “You may not turn it into a yes, but it’s what’s called tough diplomacy. I don’t walk away if I don’t take the hill on the first try. The hill’s important. You stick with it.” 

Diplomacy is part of Kurtzer’s DNA; he talked with friends about doing it for a living as early as high school. Kurtzer’s parents (his father owned a delivery service) had embraced Orthodox Judaism when he was in middle school, and he had switched from public school to a Jewish day school. When it came time to pick a college, his friends chose Yeshiva University in New York City. He went with them. From there it was on to Columbia, where he received a Ph.D. in political science, with an emphasis on Middle Eastern studies. By then, his travels in the region had left him with little doubt about his career choice, and he joined the Foreign Service in 1976, just days after defending his dissertation. 

The State Department in the 1970s was still very much an old boys network, with few women or minorities in top posts. Almost from the beginning, Kurtzer, who never tried to hide his religion, was told there would be limits to how high he could rise. A senior official once told him he wouldn’t be able to work in the Middle Eastern affairs bureau: “He said, ‘We work five days a week and then we come in on Saturdays and think and chat and put our feet up.’” That wasn’t an option for Kurtzer, who as an Orthodox Jew observes the Sabbath. But by the 1980s, the department was changing, and Kurtzer soon had that senior official’s job. 

Kurtzer’s religion became a factor once again in 1997, when he was appointed to the ultra-sensitive job of managing one of Washington’s most critical alliances as U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Although Israel and Egypt had signed a peace agreement nearly two decades earlier, anti-Semitism remained a real concern. Soon after his arrival in Cairo, an article appeared in the Egyptian press insinuating that Kurtzer and his wife — who keep kosher — were boiling Christian children in their kitchen, a rehashing of the old blood libel. 

“It was a horrible article. That night we went to a reception and people crowded around apologizing,” Kurtzer recalls. “I knew then that we had broken the back of the issue.” 

Even an envoy from the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately agreed to meet Kurtzer, two years after his arrival. “What he basically said was, ‘We waited, we checked you out, and you’re OK. You’re not perfect. Maybe we wanted someone named O’Reilly. But you’re OK.’” With the Brotherhood ascendant in today’s post-Mubarak Egypt, Kurtzer acknowledges that being a Jewish ambassador would be “a much bigger obstacle to overcome” now than it was then.

The suspicion was nearly as intense, if not more so, when Kurtzer hopped across the Sinai and became U.S. ambassador to Israel in 2001. In the Jewish homeland, he says, a Jewish ambassador for the United States was regarded as all-too-likely to cave to Palestinian interests: “They assume you’re bending over backward to not be pro-Israel.” 

Anyone who Googles the name Daniel Kurtzer will find a litany of suggestions — some subtle, others not — that he is biased toward one side or the other. Kurtzer insists his only bias is toward U.S. foreign-policy interests. Back in the late 1980s, Kurtzer was a key figure in formulating U.S. policy that opened a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. As ambassador to Israel, he pushed the Israeli government to dismantle settlements and delivered stern messages about the killing of Palestinian civilians and restrictions on movement. Yet as he told The New York Times as he was leaving his post, he came to admire the Israelis for their resilience during a long period of terrorist attacks, and noted his disappointment that the Palestinians had not followed through with realistic policies, good government, and clear opposition to violence.

Amaney Jamal, an associate professor of politics at Prince­ton who focuses her scholarship on the Arab world, calls Kurtzer “as straight a shooter as I’ve seen on the conflict.” That surprised her when she first met him, she says, because of his long career inside the U.S. diplomatic corps — a tribe that does not always reward those who call it as they see it.

Jamal and Kurtzer make an unlikely pair — she a Palestinian-American academic, and he a Jewish-American former policymaker. But since 2005, when Kurtzer arrived at Princeton after retiring from the State Department, they have become a regular duo on campus, visiting each other’s classes and speaking together on panels. 

Jamal says that much of the fun of her friendship with Kurtzer is that they don’t agree on everything. When Egyptian authorities periodically wheel former president Hosni Mubarak into court on a hospital gurney, Kurtzer acknowledges feeling “terrible” for the man he came to like so well during his ambassadorship. Jamal pronounces herself “less sympathetic” to the departed despot.

Kurtzer, who is the father of three sons and who lives with his wife in Princeton, makes it a habit to expose his students to competing perspectives. During visits to the Middle East, his classes have met with everyone from top Israeli officials to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. “I want them to think,” he says. “Rose-colored glasses don’t work anymore.” 

Will Wagner ’10 wrote his senior thesis on the Egyptian media’s influence on politics, a subject about which his adviser, the former ambassador, knows more than a little. “But he always made sure I was the one driving the process,” says Wagner, who is now working at the State Department as a fellow in Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative. “He was never one to push his own views.” 

Julia Morse *10 says that in class, Kurtzer focuses on the history of policymaking in the Middle East — a subject on which he has written one book and is at work on another — rather than his prescriptions for the future. Still, Morse said she finds persuasive his argument for a robust American role in peacemaking. “He understands how Washington works. He understands how Tel Aviv works. He understands how Ramallah works. And from that, he says, ‘I can see how we can work out an agreement,’” says Morse, who received her master’s degree at Princeton and is now back for her Ph.D. 

Top officials in the Obama administration, too, believe that Kurtzer’s optimism may be warranted in the long term. This spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has hardly been on the radar screen, with tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and uncertainty over how to handle the Syrian uprising dominating the attention of U.S. policymakers. But, while acknowledging the difficulty of the present moment, Burns, the deputy secretary of state, says Kurtzer is playing an important role by “reminding people what’s possible.”

Kurtzer’s unflagging belief in the potential for an Israeli-Palestinian deal — and in the promise that such a deal could help bridge the region’s other major fault lines — explains why he is expected to be a strong contender for Mideast peace envoy should Obama win a second term, when presumably the president would have more room to maneuver in the Middle East without the political pressures of re-election.

If he were to take on the role of Mideast envoy, it would not be his first foray into long-shot causes. After leaving the State Department, he became the founding commissioner of the Israel Baseball League. Never heard of it? It didn’t last long. The teams played just one season on makeshift diamonds — one had a pole smack in the middle of right field — before the league ran out of money. Still, efforts are under way to revive the idea.

Kurtzer is an optimist, but he’s also a reasonable man. Pressed on which will come first, a professional Israeli baseball league or a Middle East peace deal, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Baseball, unfortunately.” 

Griff Witte ’00 is deputy foreign editor of The Washington Post.