Former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer speaks about path to peace in Middle East

<p>The event was held at the Washington Duke Inn.</p>

The event was held at the Washington Duke Inn.

Daniel Kurtzer, former United States ambassador to Israel and Egypt, spoke at a Tuesday event hosted by the Duke Center for Jewish Studies and Duke’s Program in American Grand Strategy. 

This event was a part of the Provost’s Initiative on the Middle East, which hopes to “foster constructive dialogue” and make space for conversations about the ongoing Israel-Hamas war on campus, wrote Provost Alec Gallimore in a Monday email to the Duke community.

Bruce Jentleson, William Preston Few distinguished professor of public policy and head of the provost’s initiative, moderated the conversation with Kurtzer on the prospect and logistics of facilitating peace in the Middle East. 

“Although everyone was surprised at what happened on Oct. 7, we should not have been,” Kurtzer said.

Israel’s ‘perfect storm of failures’

Kurtzer named three failures by the State of Israel, its intelligence service and its military, which he believes allowed Hamas to coordinate an attack that was successful “on such an extreme, barbaric and horrific scale.” 

The first failure he mentioned was the Netanyahu administration’s mistake of treating Hamas as a religious organization interested in governing Gaza, rather than one advocating for an independent Palestinian state.

For Kurtzer, Netanyahu’s “cosmic” failure was his belief that it would “better to deal with Hamas [than the] Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority that wanted a state [which] would have required Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967.”

The second failure that Kurtzer named was the Israeli intelligence community’s tendency to measure the likelihood of war with an Arab neighbor based on its intention instead of its capability.

“Israel knew all of what Hamas was acquiring and its capabilities, but fell prey to this idea that they weren’t intending to attack,” he said.

The third failure that Kurtzer named was a military operational failure, under which half of the Israeli Defense Forces’ soldiers stationed on the Gaza border were relocated to the West Bank to protect Israeli settlers. Additionally, since Israel tends to send its soldiers home on the eve of Jewish holidays, there were even fewer soldiers to monitor the border.

Even after the attacks, Kurtzer noted that Israeli society continued to function not because of the government’s actions, but because of civil society. People came together to feed soldiers on the way to their units or helped buy soldiers necessities, something that the government was unable to provide.

“Even today, one can’t say that the government has gotten its act together, because it's a divided society,” he said. 

“So from Hamas’ perspective, what happened on Oct. 7 [was] surprising in its depth and breadth, but not surprising was that they would do this — read their charter, they want to destroy Israel. But [what was] surprising [was] Israel’s failures,” Kurtzer said.

The ironies of the attack

One of the long-term ironies that Kurtzer shared was how peace discussions that everyone thought were over, such as the two-state solution, are now being discussed again.

However, according to Kurtzer, these ironies have manifested in contradictory ways for both Hamas and Israel.

“[Hamas] may have brought about a renaissance of the two-state solution policy process, which is obviously opposite to their opposite goal,” he said. “The sad part is that many people in Israel [who] may have believed in a two-state solution [are] gone.”

According to Kurtzer, polling shows that Israeli civilians no longer have interest in talking to any Palestinians, even those not affiliated with Hamas and those in the West Bank. 

“Israelis are now so anguished and so concerned about their own security, physical security, as well as the failure of the government,” Kurtzer said.

How Palestinians and Israelis envision the future is anybody’s guess, he said. Kurtzer pointed out that both  Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu, whose approval rating is low and declining, are hanging onto power and not yielding to the next generation of leadership.

“While there's this incredible lack of movement within the two societies, Gaza has been destroyed,” Kurtzer said. “What do you do with 2 million people who don't have homes, don't have water, don’t have food, don’t have jobs, don't have hope?”

A vision for Israel-Palestine: Looking towards peace

Kurtzer mentioned two “layers” of activity that are essential for bringing lasting peace in the region.

The top layer is to reconstruct Gaza, which includes everything from the maintenance of law and order to stable food sources. Kurtzer argued that if this is successful, the next step is to work towards understanding how to create stable governance and then getting the PLO back in charge.

The only way that Kurtzer believes the top layer is achievable is through its bottom layer and foundation — addressing the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Kurtzer presented a framework for negotiators, which he believes can help Israelis and Palestinians achieve both layers.

According to Kurtzer, part of this framework means “empowering Palestinians even before there’s a peace treaty,” while bringing together the collective support of Arab countries to show Israel the possibility of greater peace in the region, such as in the Abraham Accords.

Ultimately, Kurtzer noted that it is important to remember that there is suffering on both sides, and that part of the solution is being able to recognize that different experienced reality.

“The hardest thing for any of us is to maintain in our minds two opposite views, two opposite narratives that don't conform to each other, that negate each other [but] that are equally valid,” Kurtzer said. “... Once we don't accept the mutual hurt, the mutual incriminations, the mutual antagonism and the mutual fears … we never get to a possible solution.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said one of Netanyahu's failures was his belief that it was better to deal with the PLO or PA, according to Kurtzer. It has been updated to reflect that this failure was his belief that it was better to deal with Hamas than either of the organizations. The Chronicle regrets the error. 

Ishita Vaid | Associate News Editor

Ishita Vaid is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Abby Spiller profile
Abby Spiller | Editor-at-Large

Abby Spiller is a Trinity sophomore and an editor-at-large of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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