If Holbrooke had been given the Israel-Palestinian file
A former UN ambassador praises the accomplished US diplomat who died this week, and wonders what he might have achieved in this region.
Richard Holbrooke is known as one of the most accomplished American diplomats of the last century. During the 1990s, while many other US officials failed, along with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, to bring an end to the the Arab-Israel conflict through the Oslo Accords, Holbrooke produced the greatest diplomatic achievement for the Clinton administration: the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.
He began his involvement in foreign policy during the Vietnam War and was one of the authors of the Pentagon Papers. He also became the US ambassador to Germany and served as an assistant secretary of state for European affairs and East Asian affairs.
Few had his global experience. His last assignment was as President Barack Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he sought to bring about a negotiated end to the Afghan War.
Holbrooke was part of the senior foreign policy elite of the Democratic Party and was considered at least twice as a candidate for secretary of state.
As US ambassador to the UN in the late 1990s, he also became a close personal friend.
HOLBROOKE DID not professionally deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was never a part of the State Department’s peace process team. What is generally not known was his strong support for Israel.
When he served at the UN, he was adamant that the organization correct one of its fundamental flaws for many years: that almost every other country could become a member of the UN Security Council, except for Israel, because it was not a member of a regional group that would nominate it. He was more determined on this issue than the Israeli government in 1999. When the negotiations collapsed after Camp David in 2000, there were voices in the Barak government and in the US who wanted the Security Council to adopt a resolution that would have nailed down potential Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, like putting the Temple Mount under international control. Holbrooke refused to go along with these ideas and told president Bill Clinton his view.
After he left government, he continued to be active on behalf of Israel. He strongly supported the idea that Israel demand the indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide, in accordance with the 1948 Genocide Convention. In 2008, he spoke out on this issue at a conference in Washington organized by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and attended by human-rights activists from Darfur and Rwanda, who all believed, like him, that the UN needed to take action against the Iranian leader. Clearly, Holbrooke did not make the calculation of how taking this public position would affect his career. He just believed it was the right thing to do, so he spoke out.
Holbrooke was a diplomat with elbows. He knew how to pressure
adversaries and secure allies. He was also blunt and even brutal in his
criticism of what he thought was incompetence.
I invited him to Jerusalem to attend a conference on Israel’s right to
defensible borders. In his address, he opposed the misinformed idea that
Resolution 242 required Israel to fully withdraw from the territories
it captured in the 1967 Six Day War.
Additionally, he was not impressed, to say the least, with the
diplomatic skill of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and described in
his public remarks her involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks
as “empty political theater.” During his visit, I introduced him to
Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, who as head of Southern Command, briefed
Holbrooke on weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip through the
Philadelphi corridor, and the resulting threat to Israel from Hamas
rockets. He was highly critical of the arrangements made by the Bush
administration after disengagement, particularly the Rafah Passageways
Agreement that was imposed on the Sharon government.
I ALWAYS wondered whether Holbrooke would have succeeded if he was given
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to resolve. While Yasser Arafat was
not in his file, he figured out early on – and before many of his
colleagues – that peace would be impossible as long as Arafat was
leading the Palestinians.
We spoke many times about the lessons of Bosnia for the Middle East. For
example, he believed that the war that broke out in Bosnia was not the
result of “ancient hatreds” between the peoples of the Balkans, but
rather resulted from a deliberate policy of incitement by the Serbs, on
He would not have tolerated Palestinian incitement today. In Bosnia, he
did not confine his diplomatic efforts to the parties directly involved,
but rather brought in the regional states, that were once part of
Yugoslavia, in order to build a secure peace.
Holbrooke would have pressured Israel, but he nonetheless understood our red lines and the limits of what we could do.
It is not generally known that Holbrooke was Jewish. Looking at his
career from the Vietnam War to the war in Afghanistan, he was clearly
motivated by our greatest traditions of tikun olam, and spent his life
in the most difficult assignments to pursue the goal of real peace.
He represented the highest qualities of American idealism. He will be sorely missed.
The writer is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former ambassador to the UN.