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Egypt’s Pending “Catastrophe”: A Conversation with Former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer

By Robert Joyce

In both Egypt and the Occupied West Bank, tensions are mounting. The death of a young Palestinian man in Israeli custody and multiple hunger strikes have sparked violent demonstrations this week amid accusations of torture at the hands of security officers. Talk of a third Intifada is growing as Israel denies culpability and the U.S. urges restraint. In Egypt, protests continue in Port Said, where rather than preparing for the country’s upcoming elections, residents are declaring independence. The violence witnessed in the days following the January 25th anniversary of the Revolution questioned President Morsi’s legitimacy in the eyes of many.

Former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer recently sat down in his office at Princeton University with World Policy Journal’s Robert Joyce to discuss Egypt, Israel, and U.S. diplomacy in the region. Kurtzer, who served as ambassador to both countries and is currently teaching a class on the economics of the Arab Spring, addressed Egypt’s ongoing political instability and how the U.S. could push Israel forward in negotiations with Palestinians.

Kurtzer suggested that the George H.W. Bush decision to link aid to positive negotiation moves could be a model for President Barack Obama. Within a larger context, he supported the idea that aid could be used as leverage to curtail Israeli expansion of West Bank settlements. More aggressive U.S. diplomacy, Kurtzer argues, is necessary to prevent deteriorating relations from making a two-state solution impossible.

On Egypt, Kurtzer warned against the prolonged use of emergency laws but did not condemn it entirely. While calling the need to reform the Ministry of the Interior “unquestionable,” he cautioned that a total dismantling of the Ministry could lead to disaster, akin to the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army that flooded Iraq with angry, unemployed fighters. The economic situation in Egypt, he added, must be understood in its full severity. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Kurtzer described Morsi as towing the Mubarak line in being more responsive to Israeli-U.S. concerns than that of Palestinians. Morsi may even be more useful for the U.S. and Israel than his predecessor for his ability to reign in Hamas and willingness to “flood the tunnels” into Gaza.

WPJ: What sort of steps would you like to see Morsi take to achiever greater political and social stability in Egypt right now?

KURTZER: The first set of steps have to be economic, because we in the United States talked about our own ‘fiscal cliff’ and economic cliff, the Egyptians actually are facing one. We have a ‘crisis’, they have a catastrophe that’s pending. And if they don’t do something to stem the deterioration of the economy to get manufacturing going again, to get people back to work, to stop the diminution of foreign exchange, to deal with their external and internal debt, its going to become a real crisis situation.

And that’s tied in with the politics because if there is economic chaos that will have an impact on social stability, in a way that will make it impossible to govern and there will be demands for stability, security, and then you’re talking about the possibility of more draconian measures, like emergency laws or something.

WPJ: Do you think the use of emergency laws and stricter Ministry of the Interior-led operations is adding to the unrest right now?

KURTZER: It’s adding to the unrest to the extent that its not being accompanied by measures to alleviate the underlying conditions. In other words, if you need a short-term fix while you are working on a long-term solution, you may make an argument for or against emergency laws, but at least there’s a justification that could be offered. If all it is though is a Band Aid, and you’re not dealing with the root causes of the problem, then that Band Aid can last for 30 years as it did with Mubarak. Mubarak made an argument back in 1981 that the Sadat assassination raised the specter of an Islamist takeover. That’s why the emergency laws were extended at the time, and all of a sudden the extension of the laws became their own justification. So, there’s a failure of leadership and policy formation at this point.

WPJ: Do you think reform of the Ministry would contribute towards stability right now?

KURTZER: Unquestionably reform has to take place. And that probably means, some relatively wholesale changes at relatively senior levels, but it needs to be done in a manner that you don’t send a message that you want people to just go home with their weapons. It could become the equivalent of the Iraq situation, where the army just went home and carried their weapons with them, and then you have the makings of an insurgency.

Now, I’m not suggesting you have the makings of an insurgency in Egypt, but you don’t want to create the conditions in which that’s possible. It’s got be done very carefully; it’s got to be done with political sensitivity and sensibility. I haven’t seen a lot of that so far in terms of how the government’s proceeded. What needs to be done is to re-instill—I’m going to say re-instill but I’m not sure it was ever there—re-instill professional pride in the law enforcement segments of society. That they’re not there to just bash in heads on behalf of the regime, they’re there to maintain security of the population so that people can go on with their lives.

WPJ: How do you see President Morsi’s involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict comparing to Hosni Mubarak’s?

KURTZER: So far there actually hasn’t been a very significant change. Mubarak was interested in being supportive of active American efforts and when we weren’t active he tried to activate us to be active. And we’re hearing the same thing from the Egyptians. Mubarak and his government were always interested in fostering Palestinian reconciliation, and Morsi has certainly proved to be anxious to do that. In fact, the Morsi government may be a touch more pro-active than the previous government as we saw in the outcome of the Hamas-Israel fighting in November the Egyptian government brokered an end to the actual fighting. So in large terms, I don’t see much of a change. The same interests that compel Egypt to be supportive and active in search of peace are still there, and there maybe be a warmer relationship between the Egyptian government and Hamas although that’s a mixed picture as well. Mubarak never flooded the tunnels [to Gaza], and the Morsi government is flooding the tunnels, so everything is a mixed picture right now.

WPJ: You mentioned in your essay in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, the dangers of increased Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, how far should the United States and its European allies go in discouraging that sort of settlement activity?

KURTZER: The first term of the Obama administration, Obama tried to bring about a complete settlement freeze including natural growth. Ideally that is the outcome to which we should be directing our efforts. Israel formally agreed to that in the roadmap back in 2003, although with reservations. In practical terms, the reason that I think Obama failed is that a complete freeze shouldn’t be the centerpiece of policy that exists in isolation to everything else. You would be asking the Israeli government to take a hard position when they don’t see any benefit to themselves. So the argument I made in that article and in the book from which the article is drawn was that you need a much broader approach, a real strategy, in which a settlements freeze makes sense because an Israeli government can see that its getting something on the other issues. And you would also be asking Palestinians to do hard things. Its quite important but not as an isolated phenomenon but in the context of a real strategy.

WPJ: To what extent can any sort of peace process continue when with settlement activity continuing? The Economist called it, two people negotiating over a pizza while one eats it.

KURTZER: It has always been a problem, and Palestinians have a strong argument to make that what goes on outside their window is far more important than what goes on in the negotiating room. That’s been their complaint for years and that’s why settlements are important. The question is not how important they are though the question is how do you persuade a so far unpersuadable Israeli government to change its policies?

Now one idea that’s out there is to focus a settlement freeze or moratorium on the areas that are not likely to be in the swaps. The geographical locations that are going to remain within the state of Israel in the context of final settlement. This means that you would be sending a signal to Israel, “It’s ok to build in the built-up blocks that are likely to remain inside of Israel, just don’t build in other areas where you are sticking your finger in Palestinian eyes.” It’s not a perfect idea, because Palestinians would argue that if you never reach an agreement all you’ve done is to legitimize building in those settlement areas, but everything in life is a risk and a gamble and if you have a way of at least curbing the worst parts of settlement activity that may be the direction to go in at least for a period of time to see if you can get some traction.

WPJ: Do you foresee the U.S. or Europe using any sort of leverage to push Israel to get them to make that move?

KURTZER: Hard to know. The Obama administration really didn’t exert much of those pressures in the first term when its goal was only to get a settlements freeze so its hard to see that that’s going to be a feature of policy now. But I still go back to the idea if the only focus is settlements, we’re bound to fail in 2013 as we did in 2009. If the goal and the strategy is larger than settlements but also includes settlements, then the use of incentives and disincentives may become an adjunct or tactical way of achieving that part of a larger set of objectives.

WPJ: Do you ever see U.S. aid to Israel being part of that pressure or disincentive?

KURTZER: In isolation, no, but the one case study we have that is very instructive is 1991 when the Bush administration at that time was in the pre-negotiation phase for Madrid, so you had a strategy and Israel wanted loan guarantees but would not provide assurances that the Russian immigrants would not be resettled in the West Bank and the Bush administration said, “No, this would run totally counter to the larger strategy.” The Bush administration won that battle in Congress, even though one thinks that Israel has a hammer lock on Congress. It was a no, because Congress understood that there was a strategy, and at that point, further settlement support would not have made for good policy. So, to think that the administration is going to wake up one day and cut aid because of the settlements, the answer is probably not, but to think about a scenario in which there is a serious policy that could be shown to be helpful to Israel’s security but also asking Israel to take hard decisions on peace and settlements and so forth, in that context then I think various tactical levers need to be considered.

WPJ: So it’s conceivable?




Robert Joyce is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal, follow him on Twitter @rjoyce908.

[Photo courtesy of Princeton University]

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