Had Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, and former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, been at the negotiating table, perhaps there would have been real progress in the Mideast peace process.
Kurtzer, a 69-year-old Orthodox Jew and native of Elizabeth, and Fayyad have become good friends through their work and interaction at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. They exchanged views on a two-state solution and other matters as part of a New Jersey Performing Arts Center series in Newark on April 2, which happened to be Fayyad’s 68th birthday.
“I wish the Palestinians had Salam in the process,” said Kurtzer, who, after a 29-year diplomatic career, joined Wilson as the S. Daniel Abraham professor of Middle East policy studies. “He is a marvelous individual who knows what could be done. “Back when he was prime minister, in 2009, he was going on a major effort to get the Palestinian society ready for statehood by 2011, building up its capacity, institutions, and economy.”
Fayyad had previously served the Palestinian Authority as finance minister and with the International Monetary Fund in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“And, in 2011, global institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund said that if a Palestinian state had come into being at that time, it was ready, it was not going to be a failed state,” said Kurtzer. “And that’s saying something.”
Fayyad, who was in office from 2007-2013, has mostly eschewed media requests since giving up his post as prime minister over differences with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regarding economic policy. Having received a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas, he flashed a “hook-em horns” sign when introduced to the audience of 250. Fayyad is visiting senior scholar and Daniella Lipper Coules ’95 distinguished visitor in foreign affairs at the Wilson School, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, and a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institute.
“He’s all over the place,” said Kurtzer. “He has a number of responsibilities, but he actually is based in and lives in Princeton.”
Both Fayyad and Kurtzer are steadfastly in favor of a two-state solution, despite the obstacles it now faces following intermittent periods of optimism since the 1993 Oslo accords.
“The key ingredient, among the many that are required, is leadership, the leaders who are ready to actually move their societies forward, not to be captive of public sentiments,” said Kurtzer. “The two-state solution is the best for all the people involved. An Israeli leader must buck the pressure of the right wing, and a Palestinian leader must buck the pressure from refugees and the terrorist groups.”
Fayyad agrees. His motto as prime minister was “One Homeland, One Flag, and One Law.”
“The two-state solution is the best conclusion.” Fayyad said. “The Palestinians have to have a definite statement from Israel that they respect our rights to live in freedom and dignity in our own state.
“We have talked, but so far we have not had anything a leader could take to our people.’’
In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza when the Palestinian Authority regained control of that territory from Hamas. The Palestinians rejected the offer.
“What we want is a state on areas Israel captured in 1967,” Fayyad explained. “That includes East Jerusalem as our capital, not the village of Abu Dis (a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem). That was not offered then, and it is something we have to have. Since then, the Israeli government has expanded the area of Jerusalem.”
Further complicating matters, in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy to the city, the Trump Administration has enraged the Arab world; its leaders cite it as as evidence that the U.S. cannot be considered an impartial arbiter in the peace process. Also, because of the settlements built on 60 percent of the West Bank since Olmert made his offer in 2008, only 40 percent would be available for a future Palestinian state. A recent poll in Haaretz found that 42 percent of Israelis, including supporters of two states, favor some form of West Bank annexation.
“We await both [President Donald] Trump’s Mideast plan and the Israeli elections next week,” said Fayyad. “Will either change the situation? We’ll see.”
Though rarely mentioned, the Palestinians want their future state to be a democracy, unlike most Mideast nations. Even Hamas was elected in 2006 by the citizens of Gaza.
“I was at the [U.S.] embassy in the 1980s and was introduced to a young man who had just been released from prison [after] quite a few years,” said Kurtzer. “He had been involved in some action against Israel. He said to me the following: If the occupation doesn’t end, I’m ready to go back to prison as a result of the action I will take, but if we do get a state and it is not a democracy, I am ready to go to prison fighting for democracy.”
Kurtzer was impressed. “On one hand, he was fighting for independence. On the other hand, he didn’t want to fight for an authoritarian. I give him a lot of credit.’’
Fayyad mentioned an Israeli statement of rights and Jerusalem as key Palestinian issues, though they cannot be truly addressed without a unified government for Gaza and the West Bank.
“There can be no peace while we are divided,’’ Fayyad said. “We need to be one.”
So, what can be done to revive the long-dormant peace process?
“More economic activity on the ground … to ensure that Palestinians have an economic future,” said Kurtzer. “Another is Israel can stop settlement activity that is eating up land that would go to a Palestinian state.”
It would also be helpful for other Arab nations to “provide the Palestinians with investments and other kinds of opportunities, so they feel they are not alone,” Kurtzer said. “There are a number of steps that can be taken that don’t get you to peace, but they can pave the road to peace. We do have an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that has lasted 40 years.”
For the Palestinians, Fayyad feels respect is the key.
“To us, that declaration (from Israel) could be something that can get talks started,” he said.
Both friends hope, despite the long-expired enthusiasm that came from the signing of the Oslo Accords, leaders will emerge who can somehow give Israel assurances of security, and the Palestinians their own state.