Emotions Are Raw After Israeli And Palestinian Teens Are Killed

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Tensions intensified after the kidnapping and killing of 3 Israeli teens, and the apparent retribution murder of a Palestinian teen. David Greene talks to ex-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. This week, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have risen dramatically. In the wake of the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens followed by the apparent revenge kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian youth, all sides say, they want calm. And yet, fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants has intensified over the past 24 hours.

To understand where this all may be headed, we reached Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and, currently, a professor at Princeton University. Well, Ambassador, thanks for coming on the program. We appreciate you taking the time.

DANIEL KURTZER: My pleasure.

GREENE: So if we think about the search for some kind of peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, how low is this low point that we've reached this week?

KURTZER: We're at a very low point where emotions are raw, where anything now can lead to a very significant escalation. Both societies have suffered really horrific acts of violence. Everybody's on edge, and it's a very challenging situation now.

GREENE: You talk about the raw emotions. We had a reporter in the region this week describing a Palestinian who was pepper-sprayed by an Israeli on a train. And it just sounds like that's not an isolated incident right now, with a lot of anger and racial tension among people on the streets. Have we seen it this bad before?

KURTZER: No. I guess the closest we saw was during the Second Intifada between 2000, 2004. But the difference today is you've had this long period of relative quiet, and then you have these really horrific acts. And a whole set of emotions have been unleashed. And so it is different, and I think it's, in many ways, the worst we've seen in many decades.

GREENE: I guess I wonder - you know, we hear from the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, both still saying that they don't want this to escalate. But when we talk about those kinds of emotions among individuals in these two societies, does that put pressure on their governments - their respective governments to retaliate each time something happens?

KURTZER: Well, it puts a different kind of pressure on the two governments, and that is to act responsibly. You do want governments to be responsive to public opinion. But in this case, you need the two governments to really rise above that kind of raw emotional public opinion and to act responsibly. And the real question is whether or not, out of this terrible situation, there are opportunities to build something positive.

I wrote an article the other day which suggested that it is time for the United States to not only intervene to stop the violence, but see whether or not we can build something forward-looking with regard to the peace process. I know it sounds unrealistic at the moment, but that's what diplomats and statesmen are supposed to be doing during these times of crisis, not simply responding to the emotions of the crowd.

GREENE: But what kind of position is the United States in right now? What are their options, if there are any here?

KURTZER: Well, we're a little bit on the sidelines and in part because of our own doing. After the failure of Secretary Kerry's diplomacy - and I really thought that diplomacy was handled terrifically. I thought he did a great job. But once it didn't succeed, the president called for a quote, unquote, "pause in the peace process." And that pause, in effect, puts us on the sidelines at exactly the moment when these two parties - the Israelis and the Palestinians - may need some outside help. So I'm not suggesting that we drop everything and focus on this. But this is something where the United States can help to try to move this thing away from the deterioration.

GREENE: Saeb Erekat, the prominent Palestinian official and often a negotiator with Israel, said, what happened this week has essentially killed any chance for peace. I mean, is that just bluster, or does he have a point?

KURTZER: No, I think it's bluster. Look, the reality is that these two parties are so intertwined. They've lived together for so long. There are going to be problems like this into the foreseeable future. But there's also no alternative to finding some peaceful way out of this. So I think the idea that you take one crisis and declare the process of peacemaking to be dead is probably a bit overstated. But it's certainly hard to think about peace at this moment, when people are looking more to hurt each other rather than to find a way to live with each other.

GREENE: Ambassador Kurtzer, thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it.

KURTZER: My pleasure, David. Thank you.

GREENE: Daniel Kurtzer is the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.

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