Since its founding, the state of Israel has cultivated a uniquely intimate relationship with the United States in military, economic and intelligence affairs; developed numerous global ﬁ rms that are industry leaders; and dominated its neighbors with weapons, both conventional and nuclear. Israelis have also conﬁscated their neighbors’ lands, invaded and demolished homes, and killed civilians in large numbers. Yet Israel demands that the world not judge its actions harshly, because Jews have suffered exceptionally. Further, they want the rest of the world to accept the Old Testament as justiﬁcation for their claim to the land. U.S. policy supports this claim, amazingly, but America has not found a way to make Israel secure. That is the challenge facing U.S. diplomats, like Martin Indyk, who want to bring peace to the Middle East. Until the United States changes the way it deals with Israel, the cycle of violence will continue. Perhaps it is possible to make Israel secure and integrate it into its region, but it will take American leaders with the courage to break with the practices of the past.
Martin Indyk’s new book is about how the Clinton administration tried and failed to achieve peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He includes the standard mythology: an isolated Israel in a sea of non-democratic enemies whose goal it is to destroy the Jews. But the recognition of Israel by Arab states, the Palestinian recognition that Israel is there to stay and that most of the original Palestinian owners are not going to return to pre-1948 land, and a cessation of hostilities have all been offered and rejected. They remain on the table, but the continued absorption of the West Bank appears to be Israel’s main goal.
The author claims that the innocence of the president of the United States and his advisers is the reason for the failure to reach a peace agreement, in addition to the “structural impediments detailed in this book: the resistance of Arab leaders to change; the fractiousness of Israeli politics; Palestinian dysfunctionalism; and the vulnerability of any political process to endemic violence and terrorism” (p. 393). Going forward, he warns, a new strategy should be “less naïve in its assumptions, more modest in its ambitions, more humble in its approach, and more imaginative in its anticipation of what can go wrong” (p. 10). While Indyk lays much of the blame for failures on the United States, by the end of the book Israel, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinians (especially Arafat), the Arab world, Iran and the Bush administration also bear heavy responsibility. His conclusion that Clinton administration failures derived from innocence is not quite accurate; there was an unrealistic assumption that Arabs could be forced into meeting Israeli and U.S. demands. Indyk’s account reads like a confession of avoidable mistakes:
One reason for our capriciousness and improvisation lay in the asymmetrical nature of our relations with the two sides. Israel was our ally and Clinton was strongly committed to its security and well-being. The United States had no such commitment to the Palestinians, although Clinton identiﬁed with their aspirations for independent statehood (pp. 308-09).
The Americans claimed to be “facilitators,” presenting Israel’s ideas to the Arabs and hoping to be seen as a neutral party, but they often became advocates.
The reader is left with the clear impression that President Clinton himself may have been an obstacle to peace, as he simply did not know how to negotiate. At one point the Israeli team had to explicitly tell him that their position was a bargaining tactic and that it was counterproductive for him to take it off the table. Clinton several times lost his temper and threatened the Palestinian leaders (Abu Alaa and Abu Mazen). Threats backﬁred with Arafat, who simply said that if he agreed to certain demands, he would be assassinated. The Israelis convinced Clinton that they believed Arafat; they knew the Palestinians’ position better than Clinton or his advisers.
Indyk began his distinguished career as an academic in his native Australia, arriving in the United States in 1982 on sabbatical to teach at Columbia University. He decided to stay and took a job with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), from which post he founded and became director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “a think tank…with support from the pro-Israel community,” as he puts it (p. 15). In 1993, President Clinton appointed him to the National Security Council as his senior adviser on the Middle East. He was subsequently promoted to U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. After his government service, Indyk became director of the Haim Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Indyk is frank about the challenge of being Jewish and working in the Arab world: “One particularly acerbic Arab journalist labeled us ‘the ﬁve rabbis’” (p. 25). It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Indyk’s views because he sympathizes with Israel. His account of events includes valuable primary information and lessons on how complex the challenge is between making and implementing policy. Unfortunately, Indyk leaves us in the dark regarding the fact that he and his colleagues often had disagreements among themselves that were sharper than those between the Palestinians and Israelis. There was also confusion about their role in the talks. Aaron Miller, on the staff with Indyk, now admits that the U.S. negotiators often acted as “Israel’s lawyer.” Indyk leaves no doubt that they presented positions in talks with the Palestinians that represented both the United States and Israel.
This is a detailed account of the travails of a group of talented U.S. ofﬁcials who could not form into a team, working for an administration that distributed responsibility among the secretary of state, the National Security Council and the president in ways guaranteed to fail, in an environment full of unpleasant surprises. The Clinton administration did not understand the Arabs, could not count on the Israelis to tell them everything they needed to know, and often found out too late to make a difference: “[W]e failed to anticipate that the Middle Eastern players, including our Israeli peacemaking partner, would succeed in bending our efforts to their own advantage, producing a very different result than the one we were aiming for” (p. 78). It is evident that these accomplished American diplomats were not sufﬁciently familiar with the environment they were trying to transform and only recognized their limits in hindsight.
The Clinton administration’s commitment of the prestige of the president to push peace talks along promised, in theory, to transform a region “mired in tribalism into a land of peace and harmony” (p. 3). Indyk writes that Clinton and his advisers believed they could change the region by providing the good ofﬁces of the United States to bridge the differences between Israelis and the Arabs (Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians). They conducted negotiations on three tracks at the same time, balancing openings with one party when talks stalled with others. In hindsight, Indyk views this attempt as an abject failure: “[T]he dark side of [American] innocence is a naiveté bred in ignorance and arrogance that generates a chronic inability to comprehend the multiple ironies of the Middle East” (p. 7). To overcome these shortcomings, Indyk has a recommendation for future negotiators:
Humility, ﬂexibility, and agility. . . . They need to have their radars tuned for those unusual moments when Middle Eastern leaders break the mold of anticipated behavior and act in surprising ways — when Rabin extends his arm to Arafat and the PLO chairman grasps it, when King Hussein decides to deal openly with Israel, when Asad drops all his preconditions and asks only that Clinton conclude the deal quickly, when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah offers to end the conﬂict with Israel, and when Iran’s hardliners propose a grand bargain to Bush (p. 397).
The narrative is kept lively by humorous incidents that appear inconsequential in the midst of talks of global signiﬁcance but demand the attention of diplomatic protocol. For example, Indyk describes the delicate challenge of making sure Arafat refrained from kissing everyone during the 1993 Oslo Accord signing ceremonies on the White House Lawn. The diplomatic skills of U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerijian and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan were enlisted for the job. They succeeded.
Indyk also provides an account of President Clinton’s feelings of betrayal and anger at the end of his term over agreements that had come so close, only to fail. The assassination of Rabin was a major blow to the peace march, but other issues conspired to halt its progress, and Arafat came under heavy pressure to give more to save the day:
Arafat reluctantly accepted Clinton’s argument that they needed to use the little time left in his presidency to try to conclude the ﬁnal-status agreement. Arafat, no fool, told Clinton he was fearful that at the summit Barak would try to drive him into a corner and make him look like the guilty party. He therefore sought a promise from Clinton that whatever happened at Camp David, he would not be blamed. Clinton promised him, ‘Under no circumstances will I place the blame for failure on you’” (p. 293).
Having come so close to a historic agreement, however, Clinton was in no mood to be forgiving. Just before leaving ofﬁce, Clinton called Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell with some advice: “Don’t you ever trust that son of a bitch. He lied to me and he’ll lie to you,” adding, “Don’t let Arafat sucker punch you like he did me” (p.14).
In addition to bashing the usual suspects, Indyk spends a signiﬁcant amount of the book dishing out withering criticism of the Bush administration for failing to follow up on the progress made by the Clinton administration and squandering it through negligence. In fact, the failure of the peace process was due not to the innocence of Indyk, President Clinton and their colleagues, but to the policy objectives of Israel’s right wing and their American allies, particularly in the U.S. Congress. Buying time while making the occupation permanent is Israel’s policy goal, and American ofﬁcials have often acted as enablers.