Sunnie Ying ‘17
On Feb. 20, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer delivered a lecture at Smith College. Titled “Choices Facing the United States: Greater Israel or Global Israel,” the former ambassador discussed the commitments, agreements and disagreements in the bilateral relationship, with an emphasis on anticipating shifts faced by this relationship under the new Trump administration.
Daniel Kurtzer served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the term of President Bill Clinton and was the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, during President George W. Bush’s term. According to an interview with Stanford, when asked why he was drawn to the Middle East, he later replied, “The work never seems to be finished in this region. It is not a place where tuxedos and cocktail parties characterize diplomacy.”
The lecture was sponsored by the Program in Jewish Studies, the Program in Middle East Studies and the Lewis Global Studies Center. An audience from the Smith community, the other Five Colleges and the local community filled the auditorium in Stoddard Hall.
Professor Justin Cammy from the Jewish Studies department opened the talk by introducing the speaker. “We could not imagine that it [the lecture] would take place in the domestic and geopolitical context we find ourselves in,” he said, highlighting the importance and high possibility of change in the U.S.-Israel relationship.“There are a lot of things on the agenda both in terms of his experience as ambassador, and how it can help us interpret today.”
Kurtzer opened the lecture by admitting that the title is misleading, and speaks as if the United States is in charge of whether Israel will pursue its nationalist aim. Kurtzer then asked the question of whether the U.S. needs Israel as much as Israel needs the U.S., and moved into an analysis of the position of the two leaders, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.
The former ambassador observed that though Netanyahu’s position has been clear, Trump has adopted a much more ambivalent stance and has given out mixed signals to the U.S. ally on important issues such as settlements and the two-state solution. Kurtzer particularly dissected the press conference co-hosted by Trump and Netanyahu, and suggested that it was more for show than reality.
Krutzer then took the audience deeper into how the bilateral relationship has evolved over time. When it comes down to the core question of their approach to threats and values in foreign relations, Israel seems to be in the same boat as the U.S. Both take a strategic approach to threats, and both are democratic. Israel’s democracy is like an “on-going town hall meeting,” as Kurtzer described. However, the U.S. might be drifting apart from Israel, even in these two key foundations of cooperation. The U.S. considers defeating ISIS to be its central aim in the Middle East, whereas Israel recognizes Iran as a more important threat. Israel is also more willing to resort to the use of force to solve conflicts than the U.S. would feel comfortable. Increasing popularity of ultra-orthodoxy in Israel and the rising ride of antisemitism in the United States may also hurt the relationship of the two countries.
Lastly, the former ambassador took questions from the curious audience, which ranged from the qualities of a successful ambassador to the changing attitudes of the Jewish American community towards Israel.