J Street event in S.F. lauds Kerry, blasts settlements

More than 400 people turned out to hear Daniel Kurtzer, former United States ambassador to Israel and Egypt, speak about the outlook for Israel-Palestinian peace, which he called “a doable proposition,” on Nov. 7 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Sponsored by J Street, the event also featured Jeremy Ben-Ami, the organization’s executive director. Both men focused on Secretary of State John Kerry’s extended visits to the Middle East and his visible eagerness to keep the latest peace talks going. Kurtzer defined Kerry’s efforts as “almost unprecedented in the history of American involvement” in the peace process.

Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, speaks at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco on Nov. 7. photo/ryan ariel simon

The U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 told the crowd that the “punch line” for his talk could have been the statements Kerry had made that very day in the Middle East — statements that were highly critical of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and that suggested the failure of the current talks could incite a third intifada and more international isolation for Israel.

Kurtzer and Ben-Ami agreed, in an interview before the public session, that Israel’s settlement building is a key obstacle to peace.

Kurtzer said that Palestinians find it difficult to believe Israel sincerely wants peace when it keeps “gobbling up the land.” Any viable Palestinian state, he said, would require “[geographic] integrity and continuity.”

During his speech, Kurtzer looked regionally at the Middle East and noted that “when you get to the Arab street … the sentiment about the Palestinian issue runs extraordinarily deep.” And while the Arab world does not expect the United States to do “magic,” he added, the extent of U.S. involvement in the peace process will determine the degree to which Arab countries will be on board with other vital U.S. interests.

“John Kerry understands this,” Kurtzer noted.

Explaining how Kerry’s efforts differ from stalled negotiations of the past, Kurtzer said previous talks focused on the mere fact that negotiations were taking place as an answer to the problem. But both sides were “so unprepared that they ultimately failed and left us worse off.”

Kerry, on the other hand, created an “architecture of peacemaking” before he invited the parties back to the table.

Kurtzer, 64, had a 29-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, including 1997 to 2001 as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Since leaving government service in 2005, he has served in various adviser roles and as a professor at Princeton, and has written several books on the Middle East — and was the commissioner of the professional Israel Baseball League, which lasted only one season, 2007.

Looking at possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kurtzer referenced Kerry’s interest in reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered peace in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from territory acquired in the Six-Day War in 1967. Modifications, Kurtzer said, might make it easier for Israel to accept the plan it has to date rejected.

Kurtzer said there will be “challenges for both sides,” noting that Israel would need to accept Jerusalem as the capital of both states, and the Palestinians will need to realize that the “right of return will not be a return to the state of Israel.”

Kerry’s additional challenge, Kurtzer said, will be “to tell the parties that we are not going to take no for an answer.”

“This is a doable proposition,” Kurtzer concluded. “It is a resolvable conflict, and there is no alternative to a two-state solution.”

Throughout the event, Kurtzer and Ben-Ami drew appreciative responses from the large audience inside the striking 87-year-old sanctuary.

Ben-Ami closed by urging people to text Kerry in support of J Street’s “2 Campaign,” which calls for a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of both nations, borders based on pre-1967 lines and the disbanding of Israeli settlements outside of those borders.