Indyk's third chance

'One of the most knowledgeable people in the world about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict' returns to the fray.

US Ambassador Martin Indyk meets with Arafat 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
US Ambassador Martin Indyk meets with Arafat 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
In late July, at a Washington news conference announcing his appointment as special US envoy for the renewed Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations, Martin Indyk recalled his time in Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The surprise Egyptian- Syrian attack caught the future ambassador-cum- peacemaker in Jerusalem preparing for post-graduate courses at the Hebrew University; the 22-year-old Australian foreign student would spend the rest of the war as a volunteer on Kibbutz Alumim across the border from Gaza.
It was, he says, a pivotal moment in his life.
According to Indyk, he learned three abiding lessons – the anomaly of Israel’s regional superpower strength and its existential vulnerability; the key American role in maintaining Israel’s military prowess, underlined by the crucial US arms airlift during the war; and the critical American role in helping Israel to make peace, driven home by the post-war disengagement agreements achieved almost single-handedly by then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
The experience helped change Indyk’s academic orientation. As an undergraduate, he had studied economics. Now, he turned to the Middle East. His 1977 PhD from the Australian National University focused, inter alia, on the prospective American role in Middle East peacemaking.
Indeed, Indyk had become obsessed with the idea of securing Israel’s long-term survival through enhanced Israel-US strategic ties coupled with an American-sponsored Middle East peace. This was at least partly why he left Australia in 1982 to join AIPAC, the Washington-based Israel lobby group, and why three years later, he helped found the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, hoping to influence American policy through tough-minded, high-profile analysis of regional issues.
In the run-up to the 1992 US presidential election, Indyk’s work at the institute came to the attention of the Democrat candidate Bill Clinton, who took him on board as a personal adviser. In 1993, after adopting American citizenship, Indyk was appointed to the National Security Council as senior director for the Near East and South Asia, and became a key member of President Clinton’s peacemaking team – working on prospective peace treaties with Syria, Jordan (signed in October 1994) and the Palestinians, first with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and then with Ehud Barak.
In 1995, Indyk became the first Jewish US ambassador to Israel, specifically mandated to help Rabin complete peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians, a mission cut short by the prime minister’s assassination. In 2000, Barak personally requested that Indyk be reappointed ambassador to help him seal the deals Rabin and Peres had not been able to complete. But for a second time in less than five years, America’s ambitious mediation efforts ended in ignominious failure.
Now, Indyk, the only active participant from those heady days still directly involved, has been given a third chance.
His basic motivation may still be concern over Israel’s long-term survival, but that does not mean he will be soft on Israeli leaders.
Indyk argues that somewhere along the line during the George W. Bush presidency, peace between Israel and the Palestinians was elevated from a high priority to a vital American strategic interest. This was ironic, since for the first seven years of his time in office, Bush had virtually ignored the issue.
But with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with America leading an international effort to block Iran’s nuclear program, first Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and then President Barack Obama himself came to view resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as essential for safeguarding American interests in a turbulent Middle East.
“In other words, this is no longer just about helping a special ally resolve a debilitating problem,” Indyk wrote in an April 2010 oped in The New York Times. It has, he said, “become a US strategic imperative.”
At the time, his conclusion was to urge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be more accommodating. “The shift in America’s interests means that Netanyahu must make a choice: take on the president of the United States or take on his right wing. If he continues to defer to those ministers in his cabinet who oppose peacemaking, the consequences for US-Israel relations could be dire,” Indyk warned.
In nominating Indyk as mediator in chief, US Secretary of State John Kerry dwelt on the envoy’s vast negotiating experience. “He knows what has worked and he knows what hasn’t worked, and he knows how important it is to get this right,” Kerry declared.
Indyk, too, advocates learning from the past. In his 2009 book, “Innocent Abroad,” in what he calls “the lantern on the stern,” he looks back at past successes and failures, and, in spelling out the lessons he has learned, gives clues to his likely modus operandi as mediator. For one, he says the US needs to be tougher with its interlocutors on both sides and less naïve. Clinton, for example was not tough enough with Barak during the Syria negotiation at Shepherdstown in January 2000, or with then-Syrian leader Hafez Assad in Geneva two months later. With so much at stake for them strategically, the Americans, Indyk says, need to push harder.
But that does not mean trying to bully the parties or to impose solutions. Indeed, Indyk avers, it would be counterproductive for the US to try to force Israel to act against its will.
If it did, the Israelis would simply dig in, undermining Arab perceptions of the degree of US influence on Israel. On the contrary, Indyk advocates a subtle balance of empathy and firmness to create optimal conditions for progress. America’s most effective role, he says, is “shaping a peace environment,” for example, by helping Israel minimize the security risks it takes for peace, and holding out the promise of economic aid for the Palestinians.
Indyk observes that there have already been several Israeli withdrawals – from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza and parts of the West Bank – all made possible by American encouragement and support. “The record therefore suggests that American presidents can be more successful when they put their arms around Israeli prime ministers and encourage them to move forward, rather than attempt to browbeat them into submission,” he writes.
This leads him to what could prove to be his most important insight by far – that Israeli leaders are invariably ready to withdraw and that the Israeli people are ready to back them, once they feel their security concerns have been addressed.
Indeed, for Indyk, producing a package that takes Israeli security concerns into account has always been paramount. In 2003, in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs, he proposed “a trusteeship for Palestine,” an interim international regime that would guarantee Israeli security and facilitate Palestinian institution building on the way to full Palestinian statehood.
In 2007, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the American training of Palestinian police forces and independent Palestinian institution building, he refined the idea – no longer a “trusteeship” but a “partnership” between Palestine and the international community, including the deployment of an international force to assuage Israeli security concerns. It would be a partnership “since the international force would not be replacing the Palestinian government but rather helping the Palestinian president take control of the West Bank as Israel withdraws in stages,” Indyk explained in the July 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs.
Indyk has long held the view that any Israeli-Palestinian negotiation should go for a deal on borders and security first, because this is “doable.” This suggests he may not be averse to an interim approach, a Palestinian state in temporary or even permanent borders followed by state to state negotiations on the remaining core issues – like Jerusalem and refugees.
On Jerusalem and refugees, Indyk sees the solution in a trade-off, with Israel giving way on Jerusalem and the Palestinians on refugees. In “Innocent Abroad,” on Jerusalem he proposes Jewish neighborhoods to Israel, Arab neighborhoods to Palestine, with an international regime over the Holy Basin or shared Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty in the Old City, with, in both cases, the relevant religious authorities in charge of their holy sites; on refugees, for all practical purposes, the Palestinians waive the right of return to Israel proper, with all refugees eligible for resettlement in Palestine.
The degree to which Indyk’s own ideas are relevant to the negotiating process is a moot point. But given his box seat position, they could make a difference.
An area in which Indyk might struggle is in his relationship with Netanyahu. It got off to the worst possible start. In the 1996 election in Israel, Clinton did all he could to help Peres win. A triumphant and resentful Netanyahu turned on Indyk, Clinton’s man in Israel. “The victor would soon demand a scalp; I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that it would be mine,” Indyk, who was replaced as ambassador in September 1997, recalled.
Moreover, after Netanyahu’s reelection in 2009, Indyk was highly critical of the prime minister, arguing that in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel had a true peace partner, and squarely blaming Netanyahu for the ongoing deadlock. But in a 2010 interview with the Washingtonbased National Public Radio (NPR), Indyk made a crucial distinction between Netanyahu and the people around him, suggesting that the prime minister might be more forth coming than generally expected.
“My sense of Bibi [Netanyahu] from working closely with him some time ago, was that he was much more a Republican – that is, a genuine conservative – than he was a Likudnik… But when he goes home at night, it’s a different story. The people he lives with are hard-line, Zionist, right-wing ideologues who don’t believe in making concessions to the Arabs, and don’t believe in giving up territory,” Indyk opined.
The Israeli right, in turn, is highly suspicious of Indyk. In late July, hawkish Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon fired off a letter to Netanyahu noting that Indyk was a board member of the left-liberal New Israel Fund and urging the prime minister to ask the Americans for a more evenhanded mediator. In The Jerusalem Post, columnist Isi Leibler called Indyk “a politically jaundiced Jew,” drawing a prompt response from Oslo architect Yossi Beilin, who hailed Indyk as “one of the most knowledgeable people in the world about this complicated story otherwise known as the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict.”
Indyk’s appointment was also criticized by some on the left and by Arab commentators who asked how could a Jew who had spent time on a kibbutz and considered immigrating to Israel be objective. Indyk was also slammed by conservative Jews in America who dismissed him as a man for all seasons, regularly changing his positions to suit whoever could advance his career.
More importantly, though, both Netanyahu and Abbas, and their respective peace teams, welcomed Indyk’s appointment. On the upside is Indyk’s vast experience, his knowledge of the players, and his capacity for strategic thinking; the downside is the fact that he has failed in what looked like promising negotiations twice before.
Martin Indyk was born in London in 1951, but grew up in Australia, in the affluent harbor-side Sydney suburb of Castlecrag.
Never in his wildest dreams did he believe he would become an American citizen and even less a key negotiator in Middle East peacemaking. In 2002, after his stint in the Clinton administration, he became director of the newly-established Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Now, after a 12 and half year hiatus as analyst and pundit, he is back in the peacemaking loop.
His elated response on learning of the renewal of peace talks was to quote Winston Churchill, “This is not the end… not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning,” he posted on his Twitter account.
The question is how much more blood, toil, tears and sweat Israelis and Palestinians will have to endure before they see even the beginning of the end.