Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel and now a professor at Princeton University, spoke to a packed Konover Auditorium yesterday about the Arab Spring, the future of Israel and Palestine and the United States’ role in curbing the region’s turmoil.
“I don’t absolve the players in this region of responsibility for their own future,” said Kurtzer. “But for decades, the U.S. has played an outsized role in the Middle East. And it has not always been successful.”
The talk was part of the Alan R. Bennett Lecture Series, which features commentators on current political issues and is sponsored by the Alan R. Bennett Honors Professorship in Political Science.
Kurtzer said that the major contributions to problems in the region have traditionally included resistance to globalization, lack of investing money – especially from oil profits – in their own countries, and the absence of democracy.
But he clarified that political change needn’t take the form of a well-established “American-style democracy,” but rather a democracy emphasizing basic knowledge and freedoms, especially for women.
“You can’t expect to have a modern society when half of your population can’t participate in it,” he noted.
The U.S.’s involvement in the region, he said, has always been a difficult balance of the U.S. desire for Middle East modernization and the need for diplomacy with the region. The protests in Egypt in January and February of this year were a prim
e example, he said.
“The protests spoke to the American ideal of self-determination,” said Kurtzer. “But we needed to keep those diplomatic ties, those strategic assets we’d built up in that region.”
Losing diplomatic ties and assets could pose a serious security risk to the U.S., he pointed out. Thus the problems are more complex than they seem.
“It’s not just about waving the flag with people who want free speech,” he said.
As a diplomat, Kurtzer had never aligned with a political party, believing that ambassadors should serve the people of a nation and not a particular group. In fact, he said, he never even told his children how he voted. But in 2008, he joined the campaign of democratic candidate Barack Obama.
“He seemed to get it, that even with all its societal problems, the middle east peace process was not only important but a U.S. national security issue,” said Kurtzer.
But since his election, Kurtzer thinks President Obama’s actions in the Middle East have been “a series of mistakes, diplomatic follies and boomerang strategies.” As the president of the country that Israel and Palestine keep coming back to as a third party, Kurtzer says that President Obama should take a harder stance and not back down during negotiations.
For example, he says, in May of this year the U.S. called for talks in Israel and Palestine about current and past borders. When both groups rejected the talks, the President backed down.
“We have to have a strategy and we have to have a backbone,” says Kurtzer. “It is their conflict and they have to resolve it, but we have to act like a United States that knows what it’s doing and can carry it out.”
Time is growing very short for a peace agreement in Israel, he said. If a settlement isn’t reached soon, Israel could become a true apartheid state,
an analogy that has been used to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to South Africa’s treatment of blacks during its apartheid era.
This urgency is so great, said Kurzer, that the U.S. should not be afraid to be aggressive.
“Anyone who thinks that peace shouldn’t be attempted with any risk of violence is playing with their children’s future,” he finished.