Who Will Be the Next US Ambassador to Syria?

Who will be appointed the next ambassador to Syria? Two names have been mentioned by Laura Rozen at Foreign Policy.com – Jake Walles and Daniel Kurtzer. They are both career diplomats, but what else do we know of them and who would be more effective?

Jacob Walles is not well known (here is his official bio), but from Googling him one finds that as Consul General in Jerusalem, he was in the thick of the Bush Administration’s efforts to get the PLO to confront Hamas in 2007. See this memo, entitled, “Abbas Coup Talking Points,”

While reporting “The Gaza Bombshell” for Vanity Fair, David Rose acquired an extraordinary trove of documents showing how the U.S. pressured its Palestinian allies to take on Hamas—a strategy that proved disastrous when Hamas staged what appears to have been a pre-emptive coup in Gaza in June 2007.

These “talking points” were left behind in Ramallah by a State Department envoy. Palestinian and American officials say they formed the basis for State Department official Jake Walles’s discussions with Palestinian president and Fatah party leader Mahmoud Abbas in late October or early November 2006. According to the memo, Walles urged Abbas to dissolve the Hamas-led government if Hamas refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, promising that the U.S. and its Arab allies would strengthen Fatah’s military forces to deal with the likely backlash from Hamas.

Jake Walles explained to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he would get Western and “Arab” monetary and military aid, as well as political backing if he took on Hamas decisively and created a “new P.A. government” that “fully and clearly accepts the Quartet principles.” When Hamas failed to comply with Abbas’ proposals, Abbas was to “declare emergency rule and form an emergency government” in order to take on Hamas and rule Palestinians.

It must be remembered that Welles is in no way the author of this terrible Bush administration policy. He was merely carrying out orders, as they say. There are also complaints by Israelis that Walles acted in a pro-Palestinian manner during his service as U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, a post which has ambassadorialal rank and seems to be designed to serve the Palestinians in contrast  to the office of Ambassador to Israel, which is designed to serve Israelis. See this and this.

Daniel Charles Kurtzer, we know much more about. I met him at a Council on Foreign Relations conference during the presidential campaign, where we talked about making peace between Israel and Syria. An orthodox Jew, he was Dean of Yeshiva University in New York, from which he graduated. He was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 and before that ambassador to Egypt. He is considered more even-handed than Dennis Ross. He is a visiting professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. See his Wikipedia blurb, and also this excellent recent article in the Washington Post explaining why there is no US agreement with Israel for limited expansion of settlements, contrary to Israeli claims. He concludes:

The Obama administration is pursuing policies that every administration since 1967 has articulated — that settlements jeopardize the possibility of achieving peace and thus settlement activity should stop. This does not diminish the Palestinians’ responsibilities, especially their commitment to stop violence and terrorism and uproot terrorist infrastructure. President Obama emphasized this in his Cairo speech. But Palestinian failures in no way justify Israeli failure to implement their road map commitments with respect to settlements and outposts. It is time for Israel to freeze all settlement activity and dismantle the unauthorized outposts.

He has written a book on US diplomacy of peace: and believes that the US should create opportunities for peace in the Middle East. “Why wait for an opportunity to present itself? Why not go out and try to create an opportunity for Arabs and Israelis to talk to each other?”

Kurtzer was a firm believer that the Palestinian track should be solved first before the Syrian track and Golan issue.

Martin Indyk writes in his book on the peace process (P. 24) that

Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron Miller … felt keenly that the United States could not hope to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict unless it treated the “core” Israeli-Palestinian problem first.

Indyk believed and still believes that Israel should make peace with Syria first. Kurtzer and Miller “felt that it was clearly the wrong one.”

Indyk mentions that he, Dennis Ross, Kurtzer, David Miller and Robert Malley were dubbed the “five rabbis” by an Arab journalist because “all the members of Clinton’s peace team were Jewish.” He argues that it is untrue that their Jewishness and relationships to Israel or the “Israel lobby” prejudiced the talks or contributed to the failure of the talks. On the contrary, Indyk argues that it helped. He writes, “Behind the stereotyping lay the reality that our Jewish identities generated a deep desire in all of us to make peace since we all believed that Israel’s security depended on ending the conflict with its Arab neighbors…” (p. 25).

David Aaron Miller disagrees with Indyk. He argues that America’s peace team acted as “Israel’s lawyer,” causing the failure. He writes,

For far too long, many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations. If the United States wants to be an honest and effective broker on the Arab-Israeli issue, than surely it can have only one client: the pursuit of a solution that meets the needs and requirements of both sides.

I do not know who would make a more effective US ambassador in Damascus, Kurtzer or Walles. Kurtzer has more clout in Washington, he campaigned hard for Obama within the Jewish community and thus Obama would be obliged to give him a hearing. He is much better known than Walles. He would give Damascus a higher profile in Washington and could do an effective job of selling any agreement to Israelis and Americans. His Jewishness and close relationship to the Jewish community in the US will undoubtedly make many Syrians believe that he may act as “Israel’s lawyer.” All the same, many, if not most of Washington’s top envoys for negotiating peace have been Jewish since Kissinger was Secretary of State. Syrians have gotten used to it even if they are not happy about it. Would Kurtzer’s obvious strengths out weigh his baggage? It is hard to say. What is more, we know too little about Jake Walles to say anything about his abilities or politics. In the mean time, we can be content that an ambassador will be returned to Damascus.


The following is Washington gossip on appointments:

Kurtzer to Syria? [Via Capital J]

Laura Rozen at Foreign Policy.com reports on some possible choices for the new ambassador to Syria, and a former ambassador to Israel is one of them. She says Dan Kurtzer, who was an early surrogate for President Obama in the Jewish community during the campaign, is a possibility. The other name she mentions is Jake Walles, currently serving as the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem.

Rozen also has news on positions possible being filled at the State Department’s Near East Affairs department, and some moves for some familiar names at the Brookings Institution:

Ronald Schlicher, a career Foreign Service officer who previously served as the consul general in Jerusalem, is expected to be named principal deputy assistant secretary of state, diplomatic and Washington Middle East hands say. The Brookings Institution’s Tamara Cofman Wittes is a candidate to be the deputy assistant secretary who oversees Middle East democracy issues. The job, which was previously held by Liz Cheney and J. Scott Carpenter, has been fashioned to focus on “Arab reform.” Wittes declined to comment, and Schlicher couldn’t immediately be reached. …

Brookings Institute:

Because Brookings’ director of Foreign Policy Studies, Carlos Pascual, has been nominated to be Obama’s ambassador to Mexico, some shuffles are expected at the think tank. As previously reported, Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and current director of Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy, is expected to succeed Pascual. Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, is expected to be named director of the Saban Center. (He didn’t respond to a query.)

News about Dennis Ross: Read Harper at Col. Pat Lang’s blog, who writes that Washington sources are telling him that Ross’s move from the State Dept. to the NSC will not give him more authority. He writes:

[Ross] did something that clearly crossed the line, and was working at cross-purposes to Secretary of State Clinton and special envoy Mitchell. Maybe he also crossed Richard Holbrooke. I hope to get more of the inside details soon, but for now, I am convinced by these sources, that Ross was dumped, and that it was the AIPAC/WINEP crowd that had to be somewhat appeased, by giving Ross a desk at the National Security Council, somewhat equivalent to a cell with a view at one of those old Soviet gulags.

Comments (58)

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51. majid said:

Thanks for the kind words JAD. I too don’t have grudge relating to the past. Some points I agree, some I disagree. But this is what you want. So in reality there is no disagreement.

Same thing applies to your comment in 38. Disagree on the last part. No, We don’t have to specifically because of the reason you mentioned.

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July 7th, 2009, 5:27 am


52. Avi said:

Majid you see what a rasist person you are,”zionists are parasites” in other words the jews that came to israel are just parasites with absolutly no right to israel!i hope the devil swollows you with your hate your lies and your propaganda.Israel has a right to exist and just because our people have a peculiar history they were exiled and then came back does not make us less a people than palestinians syrians or lebanese and as for war well because you are too rasist thats the only thing you give us and then when israel survives you cry out against occupation !stop your aggression and oppression of israel!and as for the human rights of palestinians what do you prefer to be palestinian in syria lebanon or israel?where are there human rights you liars!

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July 7th, 2009, 10:13 am


53. Shai said:


I don’t like racists of any type, be they Muslim, Christian, Shinto, or Jewish.

But please do not confuse feelings of an “historical right” to this land with human rights abuse carried out continuously over the past 40 years, against a people who unequivocally belong to this land as well. An argument such as “where would you rather live, in North Korea, or here?” does not absolve you from your crimes.

And to be fair, I would certainly rather live as a Palestinian in any of the Arab states today, than to be starving in Gaza. And so would you.

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July 7th, 2009, 10:35 am


54. Avi said:

but shai is it a crime not to let a people destroy your nation??is it a crime to be israeli?or to be a zionist?who is the oppressed?and gaza of coarse i would not like to live in…but who’s fault is it in gaza?? the israelis or the gaza people themselves or the people that follow the iranian model in gaza ….And what life is their to be a palestinian in lebanon or syria??how can you compare it to a palestinian in the west bank or israel??why is it so easy to spit on israel when reality suggests that the arabs treat even worse the palestinians?So the same question again shai….who is the oppressed the israelis that are trying to survive or the stateless palestinians or both??i do not agree from the beginning the defenition that most people give in this blog to zionism or even israel…i find it disgusting rasist and full of lies!

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July 7th, 2009, 12:50 pm


55. Shai said:


Most people on this forum believe in peace and, therefore, accept that such a peace will have to be made with Israel and with Israelis. Most believed in a two-state solution, but as time passes, that option is becoming a non-option which, oddly enough, seems to be right in line with what many in Israel prefer as well… So you needn’t fear that the Arabs’ definition of “Israel” is very different from yours (assuming you don’t believe in a “Greater Israel”).

As for Zionism, I don’t think it is useful to argue here what it’s true definition might be, and quite frankly because what Israel has done over the past 60 years and certainly over the past 40, on behalf of Zionism, is illegal and unacceptable. This is not only something the Arabs believe, this is something the rest of the world believes as well. No one, with the exception of Micronesia maybe, has ever accepted the West Bank, Gaza, or the Golan as Israeli territory. And yet we have settled these territories, while suffocating and subjugating its native population. And what has been the excuse? “They want to throw us to the sea…”

I certainly hope you don’t seriously consider us Israelis “the oppressed”, and the Palestinians “the oppressors”. If you’ve ever served in the Territories as a soldier, you know which is which.

By the way, I know the fear-industry is selling well (I wish there was a Fear Stock Exchange in Tel-Aviv – I’d have made millions by now), and phrases such as “destroy our nation” are selling super-well. But would you please take a moment to describe how precisely “they” are about to destroy our nation? Do you mean that thousands of $10 Qassam rockets lobbed at one or two Israeli towns, 99.9% of which land in open fields, and which kill about 30 people in 9 years, pose an “existential threat” to Israel? Have the hundreds of G’rad missiles fired from S. Lebanon destroyed Israel? Will an Iranian nuclear bomb destroy Israel?

In fact, what does “destroy Israel” mean exactly? I think it’s time us normally-paranoid readers finally heard, once and for all, a clear definition. So that we better understand what we’re supposed to be afraid of, that is…

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July 7th, 2009, 2:08 pm


56. Avi said:

Really shai we are not in danger why don’t you go to south lebanon or in poor gaza and tell them that you are israeli lets see who will be sufficating then?why don’t you shai accept also this reality that we live in a very cruel neighboorhood and that we must be prepared for war or peace??why don’t you accept also the fact that conquered territories were taken so that the arabs would stop attacking us so easily specially the west bank gaza or the golan!wake up shai people like majid do not want peace they do not want to build they want to destroy!and they also represent the majority in our neighboorhood and you know what ask majid if you don’t believe me!

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July 7th, 2009, 2:30 pm


57. Shai said:


I agree that people like Majid do not want peace. I am not talking about people like Majid. I am talking about the majority of Arabs who DO want peace, and peace with Israel, not with a figment of some imagination.

I don’t know what history books you’ve read, but no Israeli politician planned to conquer the West Bank, the Golan, or Gaza for strategic purposes. Who exactly will “attack us so easily” from the West Bank? The 1st Fatah Armoured Division? The 29th Palestinian Naval Armada? What Syrian tank is going to roll off the Golan Heights, on its route to Tel-Aviv, in this day and age when our satellites can read the numbers off license plates in Damascus, Riyadh, and Tehran?

Who, Avi, who is this evil enemy you’re so afraid of? Who is going to “destroy our nation”? And you still haven’t defined what it means to destroy our nation. Please do so, for our benefit and for yours.

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July 7th, 2009, 2:37 pm


58. Avi said:

Shai the generals that planned to attack in 1967 were ariel sharon and itzhak rabin!and no most arabs in the middle east because of the education at home or at school simply hate jews and do not understand the history of our people at all (zionism) and yes shai these people are the majority if not peace there would have been allready since in israel as you know most of us are for peace!and the enemy shai are those who want to destroy the nation like it or not believe it or not..if you think they have a moral right to do so why don’t you just hang yourself it would go quicker and the enemies would just love it…but i will hate it!

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July 7th, 2009, 2:41 pm


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