Dan Kurtzer, is the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and currently the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
We suggest reading Ambassador Kurtzer’s recent Brookings essay on the two-state solution.
I thought I would set the stage for just a couple minutes with several dichotomies, in other words, things that appear self-evident but are unlikely to actually happen in the near future.
One of them is the two-state solution. People have thought for many years about alternatives: Plan B, Plan C. Most of those efforts have tried to avoid confronting the reality that there really is only one ultimate solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: the partition of the land into two states to satisfy at least the minimum requirements of both peoples for self-determination in their traditional homeland, even if it is not their entire homeland. So on the one hand, the self-evident issue here is the two-state solution and yet on the other side of this dichotomy is the reality that we are not close to realizing it and we're not even close to a process that could move us in that direction. That has led to a great deal of discomfort on the part of some and it's also led to a belief on the part of others that ultimately the two-state solution will go away.
The second dichotomy relates to American policy. President Barack Obama is the only president since Jimmy Carter who entered office with an idea about what to do with the Arab-Israeli peace process. We know that George HW Bush came to understand the importance of it and made some progress at Madrid. We know that President Bill Clinton became quite active late in his administration, starting in 1997-98. But remember, Obama came into office having spoken about it during the campaign and then seemingly elevating it to a fairly significant level with a high level appointment and yet here we are seven years later, in some ways we are further away from the possibility of progress than we were when the president entered office. On the one hand, it may be easy to assess responsibility for this on choices made in Israel since the entire period of Obama's presidency has also been the period of Netanyahu's prime ministry, but I think we also have to be honest and say that strategic and tactical choices that were made by the American administration contributed to the absence of progress.
The third dichotomy is the situation on the ground continues to get worse, and everyone knows it gets worse, and yet there is a sense that the status quo can be maintained. But it never can be. It always gets worse, unless it's worked on very actively. Status quos are not static and particularly today. People were lulled into a belief that somehow, Palestinians would give up on violence but you now have the beginning of an intifada of individual initiatives, where individuals are simply taking it upon themselves to inflict pain and death on Israelis without being told to do so. This suggests that the status quo is in fact not manageable or amenable to simply remaining in place.
So you’ve got these three dichotomies. The obvious solution to them is to begin working actively towards a two-state solution but you have real blocks and I think this call will focus primarily on how you overcome those roadblocks.
Roadblock number one is the fact that we're in year eight of the Obama presidency and he's got a very full agenda in which there are things that he both wants to accomplish and things he wants to protect. The peace process may simply not fit in his priorities. The opening with Cuba, which he'll certainly want to move to a point that should Republican win in November, they can't reverse course entirely. Like his trip in November, each of the actions to try to cement the beginning the relationship with Cuba is designed to make this one of his legacy issues. The Pacific Trade agreement is extremely important and extremely hard to see through. There's also the question of a Supreme Court nomination and protecting Obamacare. As you go down his agenda, as important as everyone on this call thinks the peace process is, it's really hard to make the argument to the president that he should invest a lot of capital, time and attention on this. So impediment number one is how do you make a case to the president to expend some capital in order to put the peace process in a better position?
Impediment number two is on the other side of the ocean: the policies of Netanyahu government and the views of the prime minister himself, which are heading in the opposite direction. He'll periodically pay lip service to the idea of the two-state solution, but he acts entirely in ways that conflict with that lip service. How do you make a dent then in the coalition's view about how to proceed and how to deal with the Palestinian issue? In an article I wrote recently, I raised a thought exercise: maybe it would be better to simply have Israel offer full citizenship to Palestinians. But of course Palestinians wouldn't be happy because they wouldn't have self-determination in their own state. Israelis wouldn't be happy either because it would be the end of the Jewish state. Impediment number two is how do you get Israeli government that is ideologically fixated on not moving forward to move forward?
And number three is the question on the ground: even if you are not seeing progress towards the big picture of the two-state solution, are there things that can and should be done now, that would at least stop the deterioration and advance the prospects for moving ahead in some future point? I argued recently that there are things the US could do unilaterally or in conjunction with allies. One of them would be setting forth parameters for future negotiations with no expectation that they would be acceptable to the parties now but at least it would set in motion a basis or set of terms for negotiations in the future. Second, the U.S. could begin exacting consequences for bad behaviors, particularly in respect to Israeli settlements. We still provide a very substantial amount of aid to Israel, most of which is in the security area but the Israeli government is being relieved of the necessity of making decisions in regard to its own priorities. They can afford to continue providing money to settlements and not having to devote that money to security because the U.S. is filing that gap. This certainly warrants some thinking on our part. Let alone the loopholes in our tax laws that permit tax deductions for support for settlement activity. The loophole may be hard to close but it certainly should disturb the rest of us who end up subsidizing settlement activity. So there are things that can be thought about that are not big picture, peace process-related, but they are certainly would impact the deteriorating status quo.
Let me close then with just one suggestion for all of us: Don't give up. You can't afford to give up, if you are thinking there is an alternative out there that will promote Palestinian rights and that will safeguard Israel's well-being and security. If you don’t, then fine, you can throw in the towel. The reality is that there is no alternative. I mentioned in the article that some very smart graduate students of mine at Princeton had done a very intensive study, as many others have done, on whether or not there is a plan B and even though try tried to find one, the fact of the matter is that nothing else will work. Nothing else offers the promise of a real solution to this conflict other than the partition into two states living side by side in peace in security.
Public opinion polling over many years has shown the degree to which attitudes reflect what is happening in that period. There's no question that today support within Palestine and Israel for this drawn out peace process that we've been engaged in for many years is waning. There's no question. We've seen that Palestinians have turned to securing international recognition, focusing on human rights issues. We've seen the Israeli government has paid no attention to the peace process and has strengthened its hold on the territories for settlements. But this is where this question of leadership comes in. When you have strong leadership that actually leads and makes the case to the public that there is a way out, a way forward, public opinion will follow. You saw that in the case of the elections following Prime Minister Sharon's stroke in 2006. Then candidate deputy Prime Minister Olmert was quite open with the Israeli public that he was going to try to do this through negotiations and if he couldn't, he'd try to do it through a process of unilateral decisions. He was elected and had a strong mandate to move forward, and he actually got pretty close in 2008. There were gaps but negotiations had begun to produce some results. So taking today's public opinion polls as influential is important but it's not dispositive. The fact is, if leadership can emerge that continues to believe in this idea and is strongly security minded and a leader in Palestine that has built up their credentials in resistance and dealing with Israel...those kinds of leaders can actually sway public opinion back in line in support of the two-state solution.
There is a different perspective or direction in which people that have suggested that we tackle
the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Instead of viewing Israeli-Palestinian peace as a
pathway or door to overall Arab-Israeli peace, do the opposite. How could the Arab Peace
Initiative and Israeli engagement with the Arab world be a path to the negotiations with the
First of all, I think it's a very important issue and a great question. I agree that the Arab Peace Initiative has been undervalued by both Israel and the United States since it came on the scene in 2002. There may have been an excuse in Israel for ignoring it in 2002, when it was voted on during the Arab Summit in Beirut during the worst month of the intifada. You can say people perhaps paid less attention to it because of that. There's been enough time since then for everyone to take a hard look at what truly represents: a cosmic shift in Arab state attitudes. Up until 2002, one could argue the Arab states were still focused on Israel's right to exist, the question of 1948, and after 2002, the Arab states focused on Israel's occupation of Arab territories, the problem of 1967. This is a major shift in Arab political opinion. So yes, consideration has to be given to how you use the Arab Peace Initiative. I'm not sure it alone can be the driving force behind the effort to secure a two-state solution but it should become part and parcel of it. One, it represents Arab political positions. It doesn't have to represent Israel's political position. Two, since Israel today is enjoying at least enjoying de facto relations with a number of other Arab states, having the Arab Peace Initiative be reflected in a peace process would also help ensure some of Israel's security requirement. There are very strong reasons even if the initiative was ignored up until now, to take a fresh look at it.
And the Arab Peace Initiative still stands, it was not withdrawn by the Arab League?
It was not withdrawn but you never know at what point the Arab league is going to say "look we put this on the table, it's been 15 years. We heard nothing from the Israeli side. It's time to move on." The threat of it being withdrawn is not a reason to look at it. The reason to look at is because it's important and it actually may help us achieve something.
Given that we can't expect much from the Obama Administration in the year he has left in office, what can we expect from the next administration?
First of all, I don't want to give up on the Obama Administration. There's still ten or eleven months. Even if the president decides not to do anything until November, there is precedent for activities between the election and the inauguration of the new president. The Clinton Parameters were put out during that period. The decision in 1988 to start a dialogue with the PLO was taken during that period. So, there would still be a moment for the administration to do something between November and the end of January that would set the stage for the next Administration. I'm not giving up on Obama quite yet.
But let's assume that given his full agenda, the president decides not to do anything bolder than he has tried until now. One of the issues that I think the next administration, particularly on the Democratic side could think about is trying to pick things up from where they left off in 2008. One of the criticisms that I've leveled at the Obama Administration in one of the books I co-authored called the Peace Puzzle, is that the effort was not made in early 2009 to capture the progress that has been made in September 2008 between Olmert and Abbas. Now, the argument of course was that there was a new prime minister in Israel, there was a war in Gaza and the situation had changed. But the fact is that all that progress simply dissipated. It went away. We're now eight years later. It'll be very hard to recapture but I would argue it's not impossible and might represent a less politically challenging pathway than the parameters that I would like to see the American administration do.
Parameters are kind of jargon. Maybe you could explain what you mean by that and why are they positive for an outgoing administration to leave parameters to be picked up by the incoming president.
What's meant by parameters is really two related things. Number one, it's a representation of issues which the parties have already negotiated and narrowed differences. The parameters would capture where they had come to. It wouldn't be a defining outcome of an issue, but it would basically say that if the United States put them out, "We think you've reached a point that you can start negotiating from this place, as opposed to the beginning." So on the question of territory for example, we've reached a point where there is a fairly broad basis for arguing that the negotiations start on the basis of the 1967 lines with territorial swaps, probably of equal size and value. I say probably because I believe they should be equal size and value but it's not clear if you can represent that as a common position, so there would have to be a little wiggle room.
The second function of parameters is to act as terms of reference for future negotiations. Negotiations that start without terms of reference usually go nowhere. To negotiate terms of reference, between Palestinians and Israelis will get you nowhere because they will have to make decisions that are related to the ultimate final status issues and so you won't get to the beginning of an outline for negotiations. Clinton did put forward parameters in December of 2000 trying to capture what had happened at Camp David and afterwards. The two sides raised enough objections that they said they couldn't accept it. Clinton ended up pulling them from the table but as soon as Clinton left office, the two sides went to Taba and negotiated essentially on the basis of the Clinton Parameters because they made a lot of sense. I think we ought to think about doing that now. Obama can update the Clinton Parameters because we've had negotiations since 2000 and we know a little bit more about where at least some Israeli leaders are ready to go, if not Netanyahu but others. It may give a sense of what's doable.
Do you think there is a good chance he will do it?
Realistically, I don't think he will before November but I think there is a chance. Maybe 30/70 chance he might put something out after that. My very strong concern is that if you're going to put parameters out, put out good ones. Don't waste the effort. You only get one shot at parameters.
Can you factor in what difference it might make between a Democrat and a Republican as the next president in terms of achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
I think we're all in the same boat here trying to figure that out. It's hard from the campaign to see much of a difference. The Republican candidates are clearly lining up against Obama and therefore their positions on issues related to Israel are very tough, including on the peace process. Secretary Clinton, having been Secretary of State, has been far more circumspect and show her credentials as a friend of Israel. But she also has a track record of raising concerns with Prime Minister Netanyahu about settlements and other activities. To the extent you can divine what the candidates will do as president, one could make the argument that Secretary Clinton, given her experience and engagement on this issue, is a little more likely to understand its importance and not let it wane. The Republican candidates seems to be arguing on emotional grounds on Obama and Israel rather than the rational grounds of what's good for Israel and the peace process and what's good for U.S. interests in the region.
What are the implications of the French Initiative and whether it might result in something like parameters that might go to the Security Council?
The French are clearly thinking about doing something and it appears that they are thinking about parameters or terms of reference in the Security Council. It also appears that it has not gotten a lot of traction, even within the EU, let alone marketing it elsewhere. I wouldn't quite say that it's not doable, but it's not moving along as expeditiously as perhaps the French thought it might when they began playing with the idea. The issue of taking it to the Security Council is very important. It's also part of my own thinking. U.S. parameters alone would be important but parameters that the U.S. and/or the French bring to the Security Council would be exponentially more important. They would represent a very badly needed updating of Security Council resolution 242 that was adopted in November 1967. It still represents the basis for the peace process. Here we are in 2016 and it has never been be updated.
Thinking about taking parameters to the Security Council is quite important. We've tried over the years, since the early 2000s to have an international accompaniment called the Quartet, made up of the U.S., EU, UN and Russia. It worked to some extent by engaging with Palestinians but it never worked with the Israelis. The P5+1 has now proved to be capable of coordinating positions with respect to Iran's nuclear program which is certainly no less challenging. One thing to think about is updating the Quartet forum and add the two other parties, Germany and China. Once you do that, though, you're going to get a lot of people knocking on the door. Remember in 2007 when President Bush called the conference at Annapolis, he ended up inviting 57 countries, and it was like a mini-General Assembly. You have to find a forum that reflects serious enough engagement on the part of major powers, including some who you might not think of immediately in that context, but not to widen it so much that it becomes useless. P5+1 might be something to think about in that respect.
I want to play devil's advocate on something. You talked earlier about the status quo and I agree with you that it's not sustainable. But interestingly, leaders in Israel have been trying to demonstrate that it, in fact, is. Israel is doing well economically. The international frustration with the occupation has not yet galvanized into a real movement towards boycott South Africa style. In most other indices, Israel's doing well. Why isn't it sustainable?
I don't want to overstate the case, but there was also an orchestra playing on the deck of the Titanic until the last minute. One could make the argument that Israeli's satisfaction level is very high, its economy is rolling along, even the level of violence is manageable in many respects. Israel seems to be doing better internationally. But at what point do you hit the iceberg? At what point does the BDS movement globally, even in the United States, reach a tipping point? At what point do Israeli actions themselves precipitate the kind of reactions that are not easily put back in the box?
You live with a certain amount of pain as an independent state, but there's a case to be made here that the kinds of problems that Israel faces today and will face relate to issues of choice and not necessity. No one is asking Israel to give up its security. No one is asking Israel to give up its identity. What the world is saying to Israel is, "You have occupied territory as a result of a war you didn't choose. But there's now a pathway to end that occupation and end up with a different outcome." That's a matter of choice. Israelis can't make the argument that it must hold on to the occupied territories.
A couple of years ago, Netanyahu and others around him started making the argument that secure borders were not enough, they needed defensible borders. There's no better response to this than has been offered to this like that of Meir Dagan and others who say number one: The IDF will defend whatever borders the government decides. Don't tell me in advance that there's some abstract notion of the defensible border. Number two: no Israeli government is going to be foolish enough to negotiate indefensible borders. You get into a negotiation and you try not to give away all the mountain tops and not get stuck in the valleys and you end up in a negotiation where you have give-and-take. The idea that there's some abstract notion that defensible borders precludes negotiations is a false argument.
I was struck by your introductory comments when you referred to U.S non-profits who work across the Green Line and get tax deductions. I thought the government didn't support that. Can you further describe the organizations that do this?
Haaretz did a significant amount of research on this question and published its findings a couple
of months ago. They looked over 501c3 tax-deductible organizations that raise money in the United
States, and all of it goes to support activities, including settlements beyond the Green Line. Some
of which also goes to support legal fees and lifestyles of convicted murderers including Yigal
Amir, who assassinated the prime minister of Israel. It was a major expose on the part of Haaretz.
The problem is that our tax regulations are challenging to be challenged. If an organization files
the right paperwork, there are few grounds for the IRS to make decisions about the political
acceptability of what an organization does. It's a slippery slope. If they decide settlements are
unacceptable, next it could be something else. So it is a challenging problem that deserves a least
two forms of deep thinking. One: Is this the way we want our tax laws to work? Two: Shouldn't we
have investigations into some of these organizations to see whether they have filed the right
paperwork to make sure they are doing what they say do? I find it hard to believe that there's any
way for an organization to get a tax deduction for providing funding for Yigal Amir. If there is
such a way, then are laws are broken and have to be fixed.
What's your take on ideas, like those of Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog, for things that can be done in the short term before real final status negotiations resume?
Well, I'm not familiar with all of the details because I don’t think that Herzog has put them all out yet, but it's a modified version of unilateralism, where Israel determines the elements and the boundaries of separation between itself and the Palestinians and can negotiate on this basis, not being as responsible for many elements of the occupation. I'm skeptical of any unilateral plan because the idea that you don't have a partner for implementation becomes a problem. I always fall back on a very basic argument: Israel has made four moves in the past involving the return of territory in the hope of getting peace. Two of them have involved agreements signed with an Arab partner (Egypt and Jordan) and they have worked. Two of them have involved Israeli unilateral actions: withdraw from Lebanon in 2000 and withdraw from Gaza in 2005. They have worked less well. I don't want to call them failures, but they have had significant problems.
One of those problems is that there isn't a responsible party taking over for Israel when Israel withdraws. It may not be as bad as leaving and throwing the key back over the fence, but you do have a vacuum that's created where there's no responsible authority in the area that's been left behind. So I’m always skeptical of unilateralism in that respect. It seems easier than negotiating an agreement but so far it hasn't proven itself historically. The burden is on Herzog to indicate what's better about his unilateral plan that what we've had in the past. Maybe he can do that, and I'd be happy to look at it, but I haven't seen so far that that's the case.
You look around today and there are two figures people are looking at, both former chiefs of staff.
Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz. Ashkenazi has been cleared of certain legal issues that have
impeded his involvement in politics. Gantz has cleared the "cooling off period" and there is a lot
of chatter could join the Zionist Union and present the kind of face to the Israeli public that has
been largely missing since Rabin's assassination. If that occurs, if Labor, the Zionist Union, gets
does get a credible security face, all bets are off. The results of the last elections were
essentially 50/50. It was not a sweeping, majestic landslide on the part of Netanyahu. Last minute
maneuvering by Netanyahu made him the largest party, but the Israeli system is right down the
center, maybe a couple points to the right of center. A lot of things can change it and one of
those is having a credible security voice and security face on the part of the
It doesn't matter what candidate would employ me, I think my family would veto it. having done 30 years in government, it’s more comfortable on the sidelines. The real question is going to be who is elected president and how strong their leadership team can be. If the president is committed to it and has a secretary of state who understand he’s committed to it, it’s not that the envoy is going to be less important, but the envoy will act accordingly.
You talk about the Israeli leadership, but you also refer to Palestinian leadership. Are there any good people that could emerge as a leader to do business with Israelis?
We have been focused on Israel and the U.S. but the Palestinians have their own leadership crisis which is turning into a succession crisis. The candidates lining up to succeed Abbas are in some ways challenging. Mohamed Dahlan is a former security chief in Gaza. Is he really able to unify Palestinian ranks to move forward toward building a credible, viable democratic state while negotiating with Israel? It's hard to know. There is some suggestion that the current security chief Majid Faraj is respected on the part of Israel but does he have enough of a political base in Palestine? We all know Salam Fayyad would win an election hands down in Israel and the U.S., but he doesn't have political base in Palestine? One of the most popular leaders, Marwan Barghouti, is in jail for five consecutive life sentences and is unlikely to be able to stand for a position.
Many of us have said, anticipating this, "let's take advantage of Abbas’s being in power." He's been an advocate of the peace process for as many years as he's been influential in the Palestinian movement. He's getting old enough now to look to retirement and we will all look back on this as a badly missed opportunity to work with a Palestinian committed to peace.
What can APN do to press the administration to set up a platform for the next administration to move this forward?
I would only argue to keep doing more and more of what you are doing, and that is advocacy and education and bringing home to the American people here and to the Israeli people the realities on the ground that too often people want to overlook using things like the publications on settlements that APN has been doing for years. I used them quite effectively when I was Ambassador. You aren't allowed to use classified material in dealing with other governments but having checked the APN settlement data, it was so accurate that I would use that material with the Israeli government when arguing over settlements. That kind of thing is very important because it's credible and people have to see what's going on, on the ground. So it's really more of the same, both with this administration to try to get them to act in the bigger peace process and on the settlement issue and of course set the stage for a more willing leadership on the part of the next administration.