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What Does Martin Indyk Believe?

6:25 PM, Jul 30, 2013 • By NOAH POLLAK
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Secretary of State John Kerry added to the already ample fanfare surrounding the launch of talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators by holding a press conference yesterday to introduce his new special envoy to the peace process, Martin Indyk.

Martin Indyk

Indyk, unlike his predecessor George Mitchell, has made a career out of the peace process – first as an active participant in the negotiations during the Clinton administration, where he was a National Security Council official and then as ambassador to Israel, and more recently at the Brookings Institution, where he has written, lectured, advised, and founded the Saban Forum, an annual Brookings conference on the peace process.

Kerry gave a simple reason for selecting Indyk: “He knows what has worked and he knows what hasn’t worked, and he knows how important it is to get this right.” Indyk indeed has cultivated the perception that he has not emerged from decades in the Middle East business empty-handed – itself a shrewd way of transforming his involvement in repeated failure into a story of hard-earned wisdom. In Indyk’s (and Kerry’s) telling, twenty years of trafficking in bad ideas and marching down dead-ends have forged a wise elder statesman, a hard-bitten veteran who won’t make rookie mistakes. Indyk’s memoir of his involvement in the peace process, published in 2009, is self-deprecatingly titled Innocent Abroad.

Unfortunately, this humble and attractive story simply isn’t true. Indyk’s record during the Obama era isn’t one of speaking tough truths earned from years of experience in the field. It is a typical Washington story, that of a careerist trying to advance his prospects with the incumbent administration, navigating toward the hoped-for moment when he will be invited back into a position of power and acclaim. For Indyk, this job has been particularly challenging: In 2008, he supported Hillary Clinton, while his colleague Dennis Ross backed Obama. Ross got an administration job; Indyk stayed at Brookings.

Thus Indyk became a cheerleader for nearly every first-term mistake Obama made in the peace process, right until the moment it became safe to criticize those mistakes. Kerry was famously for the Iraq war before he was against it; Indyk was for the administration’s policies before he was against them, which was before he took a job in the administration so that he could be for them again.

Consider some examples of Indyk’s having it opposite ways:

At yesterday’s press conference, he quoted from Obama’s recent speech in Jerusalem that “peace is necessary, peace is just, and peace is possible” – and added, “I couldn’t agree more with President Obama. It’s been my conviction for 40 years that peace is possible.” Yet in an interview just last year on Israeli radio, Indyk was asked whether peace was possible. “I'm not particularly optimistic because I think that the heart of the matter is that the maximum concessions that this government of Israel would be prepared to make fall far short of the minimum requirements that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] will insist on,” he replied. “So it may be possible to keep the talks going, which is a good thing but I find it very hard to believe that they will reach an agreement.”

The single most astonishing example of Indyk’s opportunism is the settlement freeze that Obama demanded of Israel as a precondition for talks, today widely acknowledged – including by Obama and Indyk – as having been counterproductive. In 2009, Indyk endorsed Obama’s demand for the freeze as the only way to get the Palestinians into talks:

There's one Israeli action that may help move things forward, and Obama was not shy in bringing it up at the press conference: Israel's Road Map obligation to stop settlements. A real settlements freeze, and the dismantlement of unauthorised settlement outposts (another Road Map obligation), would give Palestinians renewed hope in negotiations…if Netanyahu were willing to fulfil that commitment, Obama might be able to persuade the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs to reciprocate by normalising relations with Israel. 

In an April 2010 op-ed for the New York Times, shortly after Obama used an ill-timed settlement announcement during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel as casus belli for open political warfare on Netanyahu, Indyk castigated the prime minister for his failure to immediately submit to Obama’s demand for a freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem:

Netanyahu explained that his presence at the summit would have prompted some leaders to focus attention on Israel’s nuclear program. But one suspects the real reason for his conspicuous absence was that he does not have an answer to President Obama’s demand that he freeze new building announcements in East Jerusalem for a few months to give peace negotiations with the Palestinians a chance to take off. 

At no point during the period in which the administration made an obsession out of settlements did Indyk go on record uttering a word of caution or criticism about such an approach. Yet today, he is full of wise criticism. In his 2012 book Bending History, his criticism of Obama on these issues is scathing. Obama’s approach – the approach Indyk fully endorsed when it mattered – “created a deeply problematic context for the showdown that Obama sought over Israeli settlement activity.” The large number of Israelis living in settlements, Indyk noted, “render[s] a total freeze unrealistic.” He continues: “In demanding a complete settlements freeze, Obama failed to make any distinction, thereby implying that building in east Jerusalem had to cease, too, and inadvertently encouraging the Palestinians to insist on that.” Indyk titled an entire section of the book “The Settlements Freeze Fiasco,” concluding that “Seven months of U.S. diplomatic effort had been wasted and Obama’s credibility damaged for no good purpose.” 

In a 2012 interview in Israel, he elaborated further: “[Obama] put Abu Mazen in an impossible position: he couldn’t have agreed for less than what Obama had demanded. Obama, Abu Mazen complained, put me on a high horse. I have no way to get off it.”

After years of encouraging Obama to treat Netanyahu harshly and pressure Israel for concessions when such advice was exactly what Obama wanted to hear, Indyk criticized Obama for doing exactly what he had recommended – only, of course, after it was safe to do so.

The same pattern of flattery and then criticism is on display in Indyk’s treatment of Obama’s grandiose 2009 “Speech to the Muslim World,” delivered in Cairo. After the speech, Indyk was of course lavish in his praise:

President Obama, by his decision to start the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, to try to close Guantanamo Bay, to reach out to the Muslim world in this initiative of which the Cairo speech in June was the best example. All of those things I think helped to change the image of the United States and the president of the United States quite dramatically. 

Fast-forward to the summer of 2012 and it turns out he thought the whole thing was a bad idea – and not just in retrospect, but at the time:

After the speech, I spoke to Obama’s close advisers, Ram [sic] Emanuel and David Axelrod. I told them that the Israelis took the speech badly. The comparison between the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering infuriated them. The fact that Obama chose to speak in Cairo but not visit Jerusalem hurt their honor. The two looked at each other in silence, as if to say, we knew it would happen, we warned him but he refused to listen. 

In late 2010, sorting through the wreckage of the Cairo speech and the settlement freeze, Indyk discovered a new idea to get behind, one he was certain would get the peace process back on track – just as certain as he’d been about the settlement freeze.

In a December 2010 op-ed, days after the administration formally abandoned its settlements-centric approach, Indyk offered the self-incriminating observation that “Twenty months of US efforts to freeze Israeli settlement activity to create a conducive environment for negotiations have produced only deadlock.” His new suggestion: “‘It’s the borders, stupid’ should be the mantra” for the administration. The “borders” he was talking about are in fact the 1949 armistice lines, also called the 1967 lines, to which many advocates for the Palestinians think Israel should withdraw. “Mr Obama should pronounce [the 1967 lines] as the American position,” Indyk recommended.

Obama did just that. Six months later he delivered a speech that attempted to dislodge the peace process from the settlements deadlock by endorsing the 1967 lines as the starting point for future negotiations. Such a declaration, Indyk had predicted in his op-ed, would help “jump-start” and possibly even “turbo-charge” talks. As we know, Obama’s endorsement of yet another Palestinian position had the opposite effect: it angered the Israelis and ensured that Netanyahu’s visit to Washington – he was arriving the very next day – would play out as one of the most acrimonious moments in the history of U.S.-Israel relations.

Then there’s the “Syria track” of the peace process, in which Israel would surrender the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty with the Assad regime that would also “flip” Syria to the pro-western group of Arab states. In 2006, after 15 years of failure to convince Assad of the benefits of this arrangement, Indyk admitted that it was a useless pursuit. In an interview with Haaretz he said:

Look, I was personally involved in trying to achieve a peace treaty between Israel and Syria during eight years of the Clinton Administration. I personally argued throughout that period that the U.S. needed to give priority to a Syrian-Israeli deal, because it had obvious strategic benefits…But I don't feel the same way now…as a matter of strategy I think it's a mistake…Syria is allied with Iran, for good reasons of strategy, from their point of view. And the notion that you can somehow split them is, I think, fanciful.

Yet three years later, in May 2009, Indyk was back on the Syria track, writing that “A peace deal with Syria would hold out considerable advantage to Netanyahu and Obama because it would cut Iran's conduit of arms and financial support to Hezbollah and Hamas.”

The next year, he went even further: “Today, nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan, as four other Israeli prime ministers have, in exchange for peace with Syria, which serves as the conduit for Tehran’s troublemaking in the Arab-Israeli arena.”

Between 2006 and 2009, no relevant facts on the ground in the Middle East had changed: Iran was still pursuing nuclear weapons, Bashar al-Assad was still the dictator of Syria, and Hezbollah was still entrenched in Lebanon. Only one fact had changed, and it was a Washington fact: Barack Obama had become the president, and he had made “engagement” with Syria a pillar of his Middle East policy. Indyk dutifully discarded his previous objections to the idea. 

Give him his due: His shameless positioning and audacious reversals have been successful where they were intended to count – not in making “the cause of peace his life mission,” as Kerry said about him yesterday, but in advancing his career. Step one was showing his loyalty to Obama after betting on the wrong candidate in 2008; step two was burnishing his image as a tough-minded veteran of the Middle East who understands why things went wrong in Obama’s first term and can be counted on to get it right in his second term. On the substance, it’s been an awful, tawdry display. But as a matter of Washington careerism, Indyk’s press conference yesterday, where he was introduced and praised by the secretary of state, is inarguable proof of success.

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