Ex envoys Wisner, Kurtzer: What the U.S. should do now in Egypt

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Two former U.S. envoys to Egypt advise that given the uncertain and violent turn of events, Washington should avoid public statements for now.

Washington was perhaps slow to recognize and try to correct the widespread perception in Egypt that the U.S. government was supporting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government–as opposed to the elected government of Egypt.

“The United States has been behind the curve for a long time in this revolution, and I think it’s a little behind the curve this past week as well,” former US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al Monitor in an interview Sunday.

“We gave the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in particular a very long time to prove his capabilities and his understanding of democracy and he failed on both counts,” Kurtzer, now at Princeton University, said. “He was a totally inept president–which is not necessarily a reason to be thrown out of office. He was also a president who didn’t understand what [democracy] means in terms of inclusiveness and respect for institutions.”

Kurtzer was a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He rose through the Foreign Service ranks to serve as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Egypt and the Bush administration’s ambassador to Israel.

“I think the best thing to do is to avoid public statements,” Kurtzer said. Given the fast-moving situation and current atmosphere of heightened tensions, “at this point, all public statements are being misunderstood.”

Veteran former US diplomat Frank Wisner agrees.

“If you know and respect you’re in a hole, don’t take out a shovel and dig any deeper,” Wisner, a former US Ambassador to Zambia, India, the Philippines and Egypt, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday. “The less we say, the better.”

The son of a legendary CIA officer, Wisner joined the Foreign Service in 1961, and served for over four decades in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011, he served as a special advisor on Egypt for the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a foreign policy advisor at Patton Boggs.

“We got ourselves painted into a corner,” Wisner said. “And now we’re in the awkward position of un-painting ourselves. And it’s not very graceful.”

How did we get here?

“My own personal view is that, in an attempt to do something that I think made sense – which was to try…to get the Muslim Brotherhood government to open its doors, and create national consensus and stability and a chance to unveil some policies that might work–we allowed ourselves to get painted in the corner as supporting the Muslim Brothers, without making clear what we were trying to accomplish,” Wisner said.

“I am also frank enough to recognize there are moments when our approach to things and the mood swing, and we find ourselves out of step,” Wisner said.

President Obama “had exactly the right line. If we had only just stuck to it,” Wisner said, paraphrasing the president’s statement on Egypt last week, ‘We don’t pick governments in Egypt.’

“Say that and be done with it,” he advised. “And stop babbling and leaping to get on the right side of every fence. Unfortunately in Egypt of the last couple of years, the fence line has moved.”

The current effort by a motley coalition of Egyptian political parties–“the Tamarod gang and the (Salafi) Nour party”–and the military to come to consensus on interim leaders and a transition plan for new elections and a constitution is likely to be bumpy, Wisner said. But “to build a consensus–a workable, grubby, nasty, deal-making consensus–Egyptians are quite good at that,” Wisner said. “They are consensus people. “

The new transition government should then move to tackle two urgent priorities—restoring law and order, and stabilizing the economy, he advised.

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US, looking to Madrid model, gives support to relaunched Arab Israel peace bid


With new backing from Washington, the Arab League on Monday re-launched its Arab-Israel peace initiative, following day long meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry at Blair House.

Analysts said Washington’s embrace of the initiative could make way for a Madrid-like process of Arab-Israeli discussions to occur in parallel to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“The Arab League delegation affirmed that agreement should be based on the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line, with the possible of comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani said at a news conference with Kerry Monday night.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, I underscored the Arab League’s very important role… in bringing about a peace to the Middle East and specifically by reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative here this afternoon with a view to ending the conflict,” Kerry said.

Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni welcomed the initiative, which Al-Monitor reported  earlier this month was expected to be rolled out anew at the April 29 meeting.

“Even during a period of ups and downs in the Arab world, they must achieve normalization with Israel when we achieve peace with the Palestinians,” Livni said. “It’s true that there is still a long way to go, and we can’t accept all the clauses [in the Arab initiative] as holy writ, but sometimes you need to look up over the difficulties and just say good news is welcome.”

Kerry “has on his desk a proposal to replace the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with a multilateral platform,” Akiva Eldar reported for Al-Monitor last month (March 29).

Using the Arab peace initiative as a framework “will enable the renewal of the multilateral channels established following the 1991 Madrid peace conference on the issues of regional security, refugees, water and economic and environmental development,” Eldar wrote.

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Israeli official: Agreement not to build in sensitive E1 zone ‘no longer relevant’


As Israel announced that it was withholding tax payments to the Palestinian Authority Sunday, an Israeli official told Al-Monitor that Israel considers its 2009 understanding with the Americans that it would not build in the sensitive E1 zone of East Jerusalem “no longer relevant.”

“The Palestinians want to use the peace process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged on Sunday, as the Israeli government said it was withholding some $100 million in tax funds to the Palestinian entity. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returned home to a hero’s welcome in Ramallah Sunday, following his successful bid to get the United Nations to vote to grant the Palestinian Authority upgraded status in the world body last week.

Angered by the United Nations vote, Israel on Friday announced that it was building 3,000 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and allowing zoning and building planning to go forward in the sensitive E1 zone, that if pursued would effectively divide the West Bank.

“I understand there was some agreement with the Americans in 2009 … at the start of this government’s term of office not to build in E1,” the Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Sunday by email. “That commitment has been kept in full.”

“Now we have two new factors making it no longer a relevant understanding,” he continued. First, “new elections in a few weeks [that] will bring a new government…and [secondly, the Palestinian Authority’s] fundamental violation of all prior agreements and re-writing of the rules.”

There is “no place for criticism (or even surprise) by [the] Americans,” he added. The “agreement [was] kept in full, for four long years.”

US officials did not immediately respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor Sunday.

But two former senior US officials told Al-Monitor that the Israelis know full well that building in E1 would cross an American red line, for both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“Building in E-1 has been a red-line for the United States, and for a reason–it would lead to the bifurcation of the West Bank and render territorial contiguity there nearly impossible,” former senior State Department official Robert Danin told Al-Monitor Sunday, noting that he spent over 20 years working Middle East issues for the State Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “I don’t see any administration acquiescing to building there.”

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US calls Israel settlement announcement ‘counterproductive’


In a move the United States called “counterproductive,” Israel on Friday announced that it will build 3,000 new settler homes, including in a sensitive zone of East Jerusalem. The Israeli announcement came a day after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestine’s status in the world body, against the wishes of the United States and Jerusalem.

The United States and Europe have long opposed Israeli construction in the sensitive E1 zone connecting Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adunim, north of the capital.

“We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements and East Jerusalem construction and announcements,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel by email Friday.

“We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder [to] resume direct negotiations or achieve of a two state solution,” Vietor continued. “Direct negotiations remain our goal and we encourage all parties to take steps to make that easier to achieve.”

“If the announcement is real and not simply a PR move for internal politics reasons, it should spur the Administration into action, as the United States has been adamant for many years, including in the Bush Administration, that Israel not build in E-1,” former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer told the Back Channel Friday.

Several Israeli observers saw the announcement as an attempt by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “save face” with voters after the humiliation of the UN vote Thursday, and ahead of Israeli elections in January. In the days ahead of the vote, Israel had played down its importance, after previously warning of a harsh response if the Palestinians carried through with their UN plans.

“They threatened [the] collapse of [the] Oslo agreements, and serious acts that will destroy [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas,” Amir Radberg, who formerly worked at the Israeli embassy, told the Back Channel. “But [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton was here and begged him not to destroy PA. So this is the only thing he can do to show some action.”

“Revenge time,” Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote on Twitter. Since the Obama administration didn’t manage to persuade Europe to oppose the Palestinian UN measure, Benn explained the logic, Netanyahu is announcing settlement building in “E1, the most controversial settlement project.” But he added, Netanyahu may not actually do any building in the E1 zone for now, just prepare the approvals.

Netanyahu also announced Friday that he would travel to Germany, to express unhappiness with Germany’s decision to abstain on the UN vote, rather than vote against it. Continue reading

US, Israel isolated as UN votes to upgrade Palestine status (Updated)


The United States and Israel appeared headed for a crushing defeat Thursday, as a vast majority of the world’s countries signaled they would vote in favor of the Palestinian bid to receive upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. But some American diplomats and Israeli politicians said the diplomatic setback could be an opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink the politically cautious approach to the peace process it has taken over the past year.

The United States-Israeli position opposing the resolution appeared to be overwhelmingly isolated, with only around 10 countries expected to vote against the Palestinian measure, compared with some 150 expected to vote in favor.

(Update: As expected, the UN voted to upgrade Palestine’s status, with 138 nations voting in favor, 41 abstentions, and 9 votes against the measure. The no votes were: the US, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama.)

Most strikingly, every country in Europe save for one signaled they were likely to abstain or vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood bid, including two of Israel’s closet allies. Germany, which had been expected to vote against the measure, abstained, and Italy, expected to abstain, said Thursday it would vote for the Palestinian status upgrade, along with France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, and Austria. Britain abstained. S(o did Australia, following an uproar in the ruling party against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s original intention to vote against the resolution.)

(Watch the vote at the UN General Assembly live here:)

The US diplomatic defeat could push the Obama administration to reconsider its recent hands-off approach to the peace process, following Israeli resistance to Obama’s first term efforts to bring the parties to the peace table, some American diplomats said. However, they acknowledged, Israel’s leadership showed few signs that it was prepared to reconsider its campaign to portray the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as recalcitrant, even following the Gaza conflict this month, and Hamas’ growing political clout in the region.

“Look, there is no question this is a diplomatic defeat for the United States cause we tried very hard to postpone [this vote] and push it off the agenda altogether,” former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday. “And one would assume that in the wake of a diplomatic setback, you do a lessons learned, a scrub, and you go back to some of the basics. Not just were the tactics right in trying to do this, was the strategy right.”

Such a review “may lead the President to conclude that what we thought was right thing to do last year in 2011 may not be right thing in 2012,” Kurtzer continued. “The circumstances are different—especially after what happened last week in Gaza, (when) the entire attention of the world was only focused on Hamas…the PLO was not just feeling marginalized, but the built-up frustration of kind of being the good boys.”

“Abbas gets his victory today at the UN. And that is where I think there is some diplomatic opportunity for the United States to help …persuade Abbas to have a timetable favorable to the President in terms of his next moves or non moves,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, adding he saw signs that the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may next move towards a unity government.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York Wednesday in an apparent last ditch effort to try to dissuade him from the move. (The photo above suggests the tone of their meeting was rather grim.) Burns “made a personal appeal to … Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood,” the Associated Press reported. “The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.”

Meantime, several key Israeli politicians, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged Israel and the US to support the Palestinian measure, noting it was headed for certain victory anyway, and that the resolution’s text essentially supports the vision for a two state solution that was once the consensus position of the Israeli (and American) mainstream. Continue reading