A Conversation with Hady Amr

A Conversation with Hady Amr

The Fletcher Forum had the opportunity to speak with Hady Amr in October about recent developments in the Middle East, his work on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and prospects for American relations with Middle Eastern countries under the Trump administration.

Read the excerpt from the interview. The entire interview will be available in our forthcoming Winter 2018 print edition.

Fletcher Forum (FF): You recently served under the Obama administration as Deputy U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations focusing on economics and Gaza. How did you see these embattled negotiations progress and stall during your four years of diplomatic work?

HA: When I was first approached to join the team, I was skeptical about whether negotiations could possibly succeed. Why would President Obama be able to succeed where countless others had failed? But in the end, I was convinced that Secretary Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk had a plan that made sense and had at least some chance of success. Even before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, I was a believer in and an advocate for a two-state solution. In the end, it was hard to pass up the chance to work with a great team towards a goal in which I believed, so I joined the team. I don’t want to get into the details of the ups and downs of the saga. This is a story for Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Indyk to tell, should they desire to do so. But there are a few things I can say.

There were areas where at least potential progress was made. A tremendous amount of work was done on the security dimensions of not only Israeli-Palestinian relations, but also how Israel and Palestine would fit into a regional security arrangement. That was not a central thrust of my own work, but it was a huge contribution to any future effort to achieve a two-state solution. What became clear to me, at least, was that if we did not reach an agreement, it would not be because we had not sorted out an arrangement that would make both Israelis and Palestinians far more secure than they are today.

FF: How have economic issues played a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and negotiations? What economic concerns have been especially contentious, and where has there been potential for progress?

HA: Let’s start with the basics. Israel’s GDP is well over $300 billion per year, whereas the GDP of the West Bank and Gaza is a mere $13 billion or so. On a per capita basis, $38,000 for Israel versus $2,800. That represents not only astonishing success for Israel in recent decades, but also an astonishing contrast in living standards between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s hard to imagine two states in essentially the same land, joined at the hip, with such a stark difference in living standards. Meanwhile Gaza is in even more of a crisis than the overall Palestinian situation: it has an unemployment rate higher than any country on earth, estimated at over 42%. Further, 96% of the water is unfit for human consumption. But the situation need not be like this. As crazy as this comparison sounds, Singapore is another densely populated city-state on the water, near major world trade routes, and it is doing just fine.  What Gaza needs is peace, good governance, and the same freedom to trade and prosper as its neighbors, and it too can flourish. 

So early on, under Secretary Kerry’s direction, a plan was mapped out on how best to undertake billions of dollars in direct foreign investment in the West Bank and Gaza, in the context of an agreement, or at least very significant progress towards a two-state solution. That political progress obviously never came to pass, but a very deep dive into the Palestinian economy was done, and there is a blueprint out there for how to grow the Palestinian economy in a peaceful context. So, when it became clear that the odds of reaching that outcome were diminishing, we also turned our attention to steps for the interim.

But before we get to that, it’s important to note that the lack of progress towards two states, and a viable Palestinian economy, have meant that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are increasingly losing faith in the concept of two states. It took some decades for Palestinians to accept the concept of a two-state solution—at first they were against it—but then they finally signed a peace deal. As we approach three decades of failed attempts to achieve two states since the joint agreement to pursue peace, many Palestinians are losing faith in two states. They think it just won’t happen. And you have Israeli ministers making statements like “There is not, and there will be no Palestinian state.” So in that context, if the aspiration of two states truly dies, what happens next is anyone’s guess. Will the Palestinian Authority collapse? Who will replace the 30,000 Palestinian Authority Security Forces that keep the peace in Palestinian areas in the West Bank? How will the world, and indeed Israel itself, react to a situation where Israel is ruling over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank? It didn’t work in the past, and it is unlikely to work in the future.

FF: What do you predict will be the most significant development in the Middle East in the coming years? How should the U.S. government engage with this change—if it all?

HA: I don’t have a crystal ball. Although I, just like anyone taking a good hard look at the data, could foresee disaster in Yemen, I couldn’t predict how or precisely when it would unfold. So let’s deal with the enormous challenges already on the table as they will remain central to all developments in the years, indeed decades, ahead.

I can’t stress enough the importance of the confluence of economics and politics. Although the Arab baby boom is slowing down, the central challenges remain. First, can the Arab countries grow their economies fast enough to provide jobs—good jobs—for their rapidly growing youth populations who face some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world? Can they tackle corruption and create cultures of meritocracy and entrepreneurship in the work force, so that even kids who aren’t from the elite can rapidly get ahead? If within the Arab world, business, the government, media, academia, and civil society come together to address these pressing social problems, then there is hope. If not, then Arab societies are in for a continued rough ride, and so is the U.S. And so is Europe by the way, perhaps even more so, as we have seen with the refugee crisis.

But I also want to address another obvious trend. How societies in the region deal with violent extremism will matter tremendously—most of all to the people of the region, who are the primary victims of this extremism. The question is not only if al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) fail on the battlefield, or if we in America suffer the occasional horrific attack. After all, we were just reminded by the Las Vegas attack that we don’t need al-Qaeda or ISIS to inspire violent extremists to wreak terror at home. The question is how much resonance do terrorists like those in al-Qaeda and ISIS have in Middle Eastern societies. So I would pay careful, careful attention to analyzing public attitudes in the Arab world—about terrorism, about violence, about democracy, about women’s rights. And while it is no more our job in the United States to seek to transform attitudes in the Arab world than it is the job of Arabs to transform how we Americans think about ourselves, we can and should be careful not to feed the narratives that undermine our interests. We need to make sure that U.S. policy—what we do, and how we officially speak—does not play into the hands of those who would seek to malign us. We should engage with the region—not just its elites, but also its ordinary citizens—with a sense of mutuality, a dialogue with dignity, as we manage the necessary Realpolitik of the day.

The U.S. can and should engage with these challenges. They will affect us deeply in more ways than we can imagine. As Martin Luther King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Image "L1005987-Edit" Courtesy Guido van Nispen/CC BY 2.0

About the Interviewee


Hady Amr is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served at the U.S. Department of State from 2013 to 2017, most recently as Deputy Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations focusing on economics and Gaza, and before that as Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East at USAID from 2010 to 2013. In addition to having earned a masters in public and international affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, he graduated with a bachelors in economics from Tufts University in 1988.

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