Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer discussed geopolitical challenges facing Israel and the Middle East at the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) annual Breakfast for Israel at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland, on April 29.
The event, which was free and open to the community, featured a delicious spread for guests to enjoy as they learned about the JNF’s latest work in Israel and heard from the former ambassador.
The first speaker was Congregation B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Michael Safra, who welcomed the guests. Ben Goodman, a member of the Washington, D.C., JNF Board, offered remarks highlighting the rapid growth and impact of JNF’s young professionals group (JNFuture) as well as JNF’s efforts to make the Negev a safe, sustainable, and prosperous place to live and work. Adrienne Rulnick further spoke about JNF’s great work and impact today.
“JNF’s Community Breakfast showcased the direct and meaningful role that donors in Greater Washington are playing to help build a safe, healthy, economically thriving, and environmentally sustainable Israel for generations to come,” said Goodman.
Kurtzer, who has nearly three decades of U.S. Foreign Service experience and currently serves as a member of the Secretary of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, described Israel as “by far the most successful movement of national liberation ever.” In only 70 years, the country integrated millions of refugees, built a first-class economy, and developed a security and intelligence establishment “with almost no rival internationally, let alone on the regional scene,” he said.
He then transitioned to discussing Israel’s “neighborhood.” The 2002 Arab Human Development Report, prepared by Arab intellectuals and public policy figures under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme, identified three key “deficits” in the Middle East that have yet to be addressed and continue contributing to a worsening situation in the region, according to Kurtzer.
The first deficit identified was a deficit of freedom, be it freedom of association, of religion, or to form political parties. The second was a deficit of knowledge, due to the lag in educational infrastructure necessary for the exploding populations of these countries. The third was a deficit of women’s empowerment, specifically “the denial of opportunities for growth, for education, for employment for women,” which essentially hobbles the ability of half of the population to contribute to society, he said.
The region’s leaders are aware of these problems, but have yet to adequately address them, Kurtzer noted.
For Israel and the U.S., on the other hand, there are two challenges from which neither can turn away, he said: Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“That problem of being surrounded by implacable enemies out to seek Israel’s destruction no longer exists, except in the case of Iran,” said Kurtzer. “I have no illusions about the problems contained in the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] — in the Iran nuclear agreement — but it is currently the best of all the alternative options” for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, “because there aren’t any other options, other than war.” He said the Israeli intelligence community thinks the JCPOA working, even if it is not perfect, which buys the U.S. and Israel time to figure out how to address the gaps in the agreement. (On May 8, President Trump announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the JCPOA.)
Regarding the peace process, Kurtzer laid out steps both sides need to take in order for a two-state solution to feasibly become a reality. However, he does not think there is the right leadership on either side to resume negotiations at this time.
In an interview after the event, Kurtzer said President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel undercut his expressed desire to be the president who brokers “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The status of Jerusalem had been one of the items to be addressed in any future peace deal, and taking it off the table impacted his credibility in that role, said Kurtzer. A “corrective” down the road would be for “the president or a successor to say, yes, Israel’s capital is in Jerusalem, but we will also recognize, when there is a Palestinian state, that the Palestinians will have a capital in Jerusalem and we will put our embassy to that Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, making Jerusalem the capital of two states.”
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.