What Should We Expect From Martin Indyk?

Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 24, 2013.

Ignore those who dismiss Martin Indyk as just another AIPAC guy unconcerned with a viable two-state solution; they haven’t done their research. There’s a reason that right-wing Danny Danon is so nervous that Secretary of State John Kerry might appoint Indyk to oversee the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—and why he sent a letter to Netanyahu arguing that Indyk is no “honest broker.” But with the buzz about Indyk’s likely appointment, a reasonable question is, well, what should we expect?

As a pundit, Indyk, who served twice as U.S. Ambassador to Israel and is now Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, left behind a hefty paper trail. In 2009, Indyk published Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peacemaking Diplomacy in the Middle Eastwhich provides a window into his experiences working to negotiate deals with Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians; it notably includes reflections on the mishaps and strategic blunders that derailed such deals. This, coupled with op-eds he has published over the past decade gives us a decent idea of how this man might now behave around a negotiating table.

For starters, we can expect Indyk to be tougher on Israelis than past American diplomats have been. This is promising since he already has established trust with Israel from his ambassadorship. Even so, we can still expect Arab parties to feel frustrated with the American diplomatic approach. Indyk writes that the “easier and more effective” approach to peacemaking will inevitably be perceived by some as showing greater loyalty to Israel than to Palestine. But Indyk argues that “the Arabs cannot have it both ways” and if they’d like to see the U.S. use its influence with Israel then “they should not complain” when that effort means a coordinated response. While histrionic pressure “may provide psychic satisfaction” to Palestinians, it will do nothing serious to make Israel more willing to take the necessary risks needed to relinquish territory.

Indyk writes about how in the past, the United States was too innocent and unsuspecting of ulterior motives that leaders vying for power in Middle Eastern politics had. “It was typical of our naïveté that we never expected Rabin would use U.S. influence for his own purposes,” he writes when reflecting on the failures of Oslo. He argues that the U.S. was blind to the actors and events that disrupted their strategic plans, and that going forward, a more realist approach is needed. “[We showed] a troubling naïveté in the American approach to the Middle East that is in part innocence, part ignorance, and part arrogance.”

Indyk also believes that the United States was soft, “continually backing down” at Camp David–thus ruining their hopes of showing Israelis and Palestinians that they could lead tough negotiations. “Barak and Arafat could only interpret this as a sign of weakness. Unfortunately this would become a familiar pattern.” This time around, hopefully, Indyk has learned his lesson.

We can also expect these talks to be as discreet and private as possible, marking a shift from the public fanfare of previous United States efforts. Indyk notes that “leaks are the lifeblood of the Israeli political system” and that any successful future peace process will necessitate “toning down the rhetoric and allowing the results of American diplomacy to speak for themselves.”

Indyk certainly believes that resolving this conflict is in America’s interest—he sees it directly connected to the strength of America’s bargaining position with the countries in the Persian Gulf. In a sharp New York Times op-ed published in 2010, Indyk criticized Netanyahu for his absence at a U.S. led nuclear security summit to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, arguing that “the real reason” for Netanyahu’s absence was that he was avoiding Obama, who had demanded a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. Indyk notes that if Netanyahu continues to blow off Obama in favor of Likudniks who oppose peace, “the consequences for U.S.-Israel relations could be dire.”

Indyk also deeply understands some of some of the most seemingly intractable issues of this conflict, namely Jerusalem. Ehud Barak has preached for years now that “the real Arafat” revealed himself at Camp David—a leader who lacked the character to make a historic compromise and who was secretly just looking for the demise of the Jewish state. Indyk categorically rejects this.  “Camp David was hardly a good laboratory for that proposition,” he writes in his book. “It was not reasonable to expect that Arafat, or any Arab leader for that matter, would agree to an end-of-conflict agreement that left sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif in Israeli hands forever.” Later, he also explicitly affirms that Camp David negotiations did not break down over the issue of right of return, despite plenty of rumors.

The timetable on these negotiations is unclear. On the one hand, Indyk says that going forward, goals must be more “modest” and assumptions more “realistic.” But we also should not expect this process to take years, squeezed into the final weeks and days of Obama’s term, like we saw with Clinton’s. Indyk argues, “An attempt to reach a Middle Eastern agreement in the last year of a president’s second term is probably the worst timing of all.” He recognizes that how a president hands over policy to the next administration is critically important to its ultimate survival.

Whether or not Kerry will manage to pull off bringing Israelis and Palestinians to direct negotiations remains to be seen. However, with Martin Indyk’s track record and experience working on this issue, assuming he listens to his own advice, it seems that he might be a pretty good choice.

Opening the door to peace

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 25, 2013.

Given how low the expectations were for President Barack Obama’s highly publicized trip to the Middle East, it may not be saying much to declare that he exceeded them. But given the precarious state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it would also be easy to underappreciate just how crucial his efforts may prove to be in the long quest for a lasting peace in the Middle East. When Mr. Obama arrived in Israel, he faced many who believed that the possibility of a two-state solution was on its death bed, if not gone already. Although the president brokered no breakthrough, he did make it appear that, for at least a little while longer, a negotiated peace deal is still a legitimate option.

On the second day of his trip, Mr. Obama gave a speech in Jerusalem that was well received by both the spectators in the audience and the Israeli and international press. This is not to be understated — in a conflict where distrust, cynicism and skepticism on both sides are at soaring levels, President Obama’s ability to speak to the concerns and needs of both Israelis and Palestinians was crucial. Raising hopes is a key variable in this conflict, where the element most lacking in negotiations is often political will.

Mr. Obama urged Israelis and Palestinians to see the world through each others’ eyes and made clear that he can do so — something that many Israelis in particular had doubted. The president emphasized that peace is “necessary, just, and possible” — necessary for Israel’s security and viability as Jewish democracy, just because Palestinians living under military occupation deserve a state of their own, and possible, because Israel is the strongest country in the region, with the U.S. as its unconditional ally, and with leaders like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who can be a “true partner.”

The president acknowledged that a two-state solution is far from guaranteed. However, with his legacy still to be decided and no election in the near future, the time for strong U.S. diplomatic leadership appears to be ripening. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a prioritized issue, and he is set to lead exploratory talks over the next few weeks, with the hopes of direct negotiations thereafter.

On a symbolic front, the trip was certainly a success and erased Israeli doubts about Mr. Obama’s understanding of their views that had lingered since his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo four years ago. But President Obama’s trip to Israel yielded some surprising tangible results as well.

At Mr. Obama’s urging, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for actions taken by Israeli commandos during a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was part of a flotilla attempting to breach a blockade of Gaza. Nine were killed in the raid, which drew international condemnation. Both countries agreed to restore ambassadors and normalize relations. This unexpected reconciliation is good news for several reasons, notably that any legitimate peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians would need the backing of Turkey, a stable and strong country in the Middle East and a pillar of American foreign policy in the region.

On Monday, again at Mr. Obama’s urging, Israel announced that it would release withheld payments to the Palestinian Authority, funds that the Israeli government suspended after the Palestinian Authority successfully sought to upgrade its status at the United Nations in November. That is another step meant to help build confidence between the two sides to restart negotiations, as well as to disempower Hamas in the Gaza strip.

To be sure, Mr. Obama has made serious mistakes in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past, and his commitment to Israel and the peace process in general has been questioned by many at home and abroad. However, following a trip that yielded tangible results as well as smart, pragmatic, and inspiring rhetoric, Mr. Obama has provided himself with at least a chance to lead Israelis and Palestinians to a negotiated peace.

Obama Must Work Toward Two States

Published Originally in the JHU Politik on November 18, 2012.

Let us be clear: it is never a “convenient” time to work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We live in a tumultuous world, with many serious foreign policy problems happening all at once.

And, unfortunately, due to the nature of our political system, an American president has only so much political capital, time, and space to act on a number of issues before the next election cycle approaches.

In his second term, President Obama will need to deal with the rising possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, plan for the safe withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, decide how to proceed with his controversial drone-strike policies, secure strong economic and military interests in Asia, and address problems that have yet to materialize. However, the time to use vigorous U.S. diplomatic leadership to negotiate a two-state solution is now; it will not be any easier four years down the line. Many experts agree that the window to achieve such a peace deal, –a deal supported in principle by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and every U.S. Administration since George H.W. Bush–is diminishing. Both sides know what the agreement would look like: what we now need is the political will to achieve it.

The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is strained, yet it is imperative that the two leaders get past their political differences and work together for two states. The two-state solution is simply the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish and democratic state, and for Palestinians to be freed from a 45-year military occupation and obtain the full political rights they deserve.

Negotiating peace is also a national security interest for the United States. We spend billions of dollars annually on Israeli security, but countries with clearly defined borders are more secure and better able to defend themselves against threats.

In 2009, Obama visited the Middle East, and Israelis understandably felt snubbed that he failed to stop to meet with leaders in Israel. But despite the lack of presidential speeches in Israel, actions speak louder than words. Under Obama’s leadership, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, have all publicly stated that the security relationship between Israel and the United States has never been stronger. The amount of financial and military sup- port the Obama Administration has given to Israel is unprecedented.

Netanyahu received a lot of justly-deserved flack from Israelis and the international community during the U.S presidential election for intervening on behalf of Governor Mitt Romney. As Israeli Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz, asked of Netanyahu in the Knesset, “Who are you trying to replace? The Administration in Washington or that in Tehran?” Netanyahu was open about his distrust of Obama’s strength, determination and capabilities, despite the praise that Obama had received from Israel’s intelligence and defense community.

On the Palestinian side, there is a partner for peace. Recently in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, Abbas declared: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital… The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel.” Hold no illusions: if the Palestinian Authority collapses (as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pledged to ensure if the Palestinians seek upgraded non-member status at the U.N.), the next Palestinian leader will not be so moderate, or so inclined to work towards a two-state solution. An inability to reach an agreement with Abbas and the PLO will only strengthen the hand of Hamas, making it more difficult to deal with the situation in Gaza. Rocket fire from Gaza is not an example of why peace is impossible, but how the absence of negotiations and agreements perpetuates an endless cycle of violence that leads nowhere.

Obama must use some newly acquired political capital to revitalize the peace process. Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama must move past rhetorical games and work to- gether for a long-term secure and just future. Early in 2013, I would hope that Obama travels to Israel and Palestine, making clear to both sides that the peace process will be a priority. The United States wants and needs their President to act forcefully and urgently, before it is too late.