WASHINGTON, March 26 (JTA) American Jews might be expected to applaud the appointment of an Orthodox Jew as U.S. ambassador to Israel, but the possible nomination of Daniel Kurtzer has some Jewish groups worried.
Currently the ambassador to Egypt, Kurtzer is widely believed to be the front-runner to replace Martin Indyk after Indyk steps down this summer. Indyk was the first Jew ever named U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Kurtzer is a longtime U.S. diplomat who served as a member of the peace team during the Clinton and elder Bush administrations. Although his nomination has not been finalized, some right-of-center Jewish leaders already are raising red flags over Kurtzer’s support for the Oslo peace process and the foreign policy objectives of the Clinton administration.
“He has a track record of complete ‘even-handedness’ and pushing for Palestinian rights,” said Morris Amitay, an Israeli activist and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
A former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Kurtzer was one of the architects of American contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the late 1980s, and has developed strong relationships with the Arab world from his stint in Egypt.
He also is believed to be one of the authors of Secretary of State James Baker’s famous 1989 speech to AIPAC, in which Baker called on Israel to move past the “unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel” that includes Gaza and the West Bank.
A senior American Jewish official described Kurtzer as the most left wing of the four pillars of the Clinton peace team the others being Indyk; Dennis Ross, the former special Middle East coordinator; and Aaron Miller, Ross’ former deputy.
Several Jewish officials feel Kurtzer’s close ties to this group will put him at odds with the Bush administration, which is taking a more distant approach to the peace negotiations and has cooler relations with the Palestinian leadership.
“I don’t think he has a history of staying out,” one conservative Jewish official said.
Kurtzer has said the protagonists in the Mideast conflict should try to see the world through the other’s eyes.
“The one lesson that I think I can bring to this debate and to this discussion is that many of the dreams and many of the desires and many of the wants of the Arab neighbors of Israel are exactly the same as those of the people of Israel,” Kurtzer said in a May 2000 speech at Hebrew University.
Kurtzer’s supporters describe him as a career diplomat who will be able to adjust to the guidelines of the new administration, as several other key peace process figures have done since Bush took office.
“He’s someone who’s got great knowledge of the situation,” said Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “I think he’s a terrific U.S. official and would bring an enormous amount to the position.”
It is unclear why the Bush administration is leaning towards Kurtzer, given his role under Clinton. Some argue that Kurtzer’s name was put forward by the State Department, which is seen as more receptive to Arab concerns than are other parts of the Bush foreign policy team.
In addition, Secretary of State Colin Powell favors filling ambassadorial openings with career foreign service officers.
But Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, said Bush ought to find someone who reflects his views and can help define a new approach to the Middle East.
“If the administration wants to put its own mark on U.S.-Israeli policy, it wouldn’t surprise me if they found someone who would be more effective in representing the administration’s view than Kurtzer is,” Gaffney said.
While some would welcome the nomination of an Orthodox Jew, right wingers fear Kurtzer might use his Orthodox lifestyle as a shield against criticism of his dovish views.
“Obviously, he will use his Jewishness as a protective cover for his anti-Israel views,” Amitay said.
Amitay, a former foreign service officer, said he felt it was wrong to send a Jew to Israel because the ambassador might be accused of promoting Israeli rather than American interests.
In fact, the Arab world frequently accused Indyk, Ross, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other Jewish diplomats in the Clinton administration of being closet Zionists doing Israel’s bidding.
To avoid such suspicion, a Jewish ambassador might “lean over backwards” to favor the Arabs, Amitay said.
“It’s psychological, not political,” he said.
However, Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs, said the characterizations of Kurtzer were a “classic form of stereotyping.”
“People should be judged on their own merits and own characteristics,” Diament said.
A former dean of Yeshiva University, Kurtzer wrote in 1997 that he saw “no conflict whatsoever” between his being an observant Jew and a diplomat.
“Not only is there no conflict between my religious observance and my profession, I believe the two are complementary,” he wrote in Commentator, a Yeshiva University magazine. “I hope the success I have enjoyed in my career is convincing to those who are thinking about public service that one can be observant and do one’s duty to country.”
Kurtzer was sent to Cairo in 1997 after serving as acting assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. He also served as first secretary of political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s and as a member of the State Department’s policy planning team.