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Our Man in Tel Aviv

This article appears as a book review in the newest issue of the Washington Monthly.

Innocent Abroad:
An Intimate Account of American Peace
Diplomacy in the Middle East

by Martin Indyk
Simon & Schuster, 512 pp.


Just the thought of another book about Middle East policy under President Bill Clinton might make the most stout-hearted reader quake; but he or she would be well advised to consider Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East, by Martin Indyk. Indyk, who was (twice) U.S. ambassador to Israel, and now directs the Saban Center of Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, has managed to write a new, very readable chronicle of Mideast policy during the Clinton years. Rather than focusing narrowly on the Oslo Accords, Camp David, and all things Israeli-Palestinian, Indyk methodically works us through the broader Israeli-Arab peace process, Iran, and Iraq as they feed off one another in a regional context. It is precisely those policy linkages that will have to be redrawn by the new Obama administration, and that theme is clearly uppermost in Indyk’s mind.

The timing of the publication of Innocent Abroad is fortuitous. Indyk, who was responsible for Near Eastern affairs at both the State Department and the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, is particularly well positioned to advise a new Democratic president gearing up to tackle a Middle East in devastating disarray, especially given the recent events in Gaza; and he is doing so with a Clinton at his side at Foggy Bottom. All good reasons for a little recap of how the last Democratic president approached the region. (It’s also worth noting that Indyk has remained close to the Clintons and advised the New York senator during her presidential bid.)

The book at times has a disjointed feel—it was apparently edited down from a much larger manuscript—giving the impression that linking material is sometimes missing. As a narrative, Innocent Abroad has something for everyone—hawks, realists, neoconservatives, and peaceniks alike—and there are plenty of "gotcha" moments, but they are sufficiently varied as to provide sustenance to both right and left. That can be frustrating. Indyk’s conclusions, however, are less polygamous: American efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict are central to re-stabilizing the region, and America should discard the policy of regime change as it engages with both Syria and Iran.

The book reminds us of the series of peace breakthroughs in the 1990s—the various Oslo agreements, for instance, under Israeli Labor and Likud leaders: Gaza-Jericho, Oslo B, Hebron, and Wye River. In addition, there was the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, and real progress in defining the parameters for a possible comprehensive deal between Israel and Syria, alongside the largely effective dual containment of Iran and Iraq (a policy framing of Indyk’s own invention). Indyk also points to the shortcomings of the Clinton era and to the weighty, unfinished business on the Obama menu. While he is often scathing about Bush’s Middle East policy, Indyk notes the not insignificant ways—from the extension of the no-fly zones over Iraq to the support of an official policy of regime change—in which the Clinton administration helped to seed the ground for the disaster that followed.

If President Obama is to pursue a policy of "I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place," then he will also have to jettison some of that mindset’s inheritance from the Clinton years. Doing that with a Clinton as his most senior diplomat is not unrealistic, particularly if the evolution in Indyk’s thinking is at all indicative of Hillary’s approach. And, as Indyk reminds us, the United States limits both its options and its influence when it is talking to fewer actors in the region.

Indyk’s recounting of Israel and Syria’s attempts at a rapprochement makes for some compelling reading. The not inconsiderable (although not exclusive) blame Indyk assigns to then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for the failure of those talks has already caused a stir in Israel, where the Hebrew version of Innocent Abroad was released last summer. His blow-by-blow account of the Israeli-Syrian process, in particular from 1999 to 2000, of the summit at Shepherdstown, and of Clinton’s fury at Barak for "gaming" him, is riveting. (Barak had insisted on a summit with the Syrians and then backtracked on his own proposals. When he again called on Clinton to host a parley with the Palestinians at Camp David, the U.S. dutifully played host. This time around, as Indyk tells it, Barak informed him on the flight to Andrews Air Force base that "he had not had time to prepare for the meeting." This in spite of the fact that "he alone had insisted upon" the confab.) The ultimate demise of these efforts came on March 26, 2000, in Geneva, when an exhausted American president (on his way back from Asia) met an ailing Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, who passed away just two months later.

Still, it is the section on the Syria track where Innocent Abroad is groundbreaking. Indyk shares largely new material on the details of talks between Syria’s Riad Daoudi and Israel’s General Uri Saguy as they negotiate the thorny issues of demarcating a future Israeli-Syrian border and re-delineating the 1967 boundaries between the two states.

As a new administration takes office, there is some debate as to whether the United States should give priority to peace talks between Israel and the Syrians or Israel and the Palestinians. Indyk suggests that resolving the Palestinian conflict is the priority (and I agree with him on this), but that the U.S. should also reengage bilaterally with Syria and support the ongoing Israeli-Syrian talks currently being mediated by Turkey. He persuasively explains the effect that progress with Syria would have both in reducing Iran’s regional leverage and in facilitating progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian deal—by, for instance, causing Hamas to recalibrate its regional options and probably soften its negotiating stance. In doing so, Indyk rejects the "Syria first" line sometimes promoted in Washington.

I agree with Indyk’s logic, but with one caveat: Indyk seconds the conventional wisdom that Israel cannot pursue deals on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks simultaneously, but I believe this thinking may well be outdated. In fact, only a comprehensive deal may now make sense, one that both closes bilateral peace deals between Israel and its neighbors and articulates a regional peace based on the Arab League/Saudi peace initiative of 2002, whereby Israel would have normal and secure relations with all of the Arab world.

While the best of Innocent Abroad is in Indyk’s prescriptions for a future Middle East policy, there are some charming stories he tells of his tenure in the diplomatic service. There is, for instance, the special handshaking technique developed by U.S. diplomats to ensure that the "no-kissing rule" was adhered to when greeting PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Or the sometimes extreme lengths that Secretary of State Warren Christopher would go to in order to avoid overnighting in Arab capitals because of his delicate stomach.

In his concluding chapter, Indyk wisely reprises the Clinton Parameters, presented by the departing president in December 2000, offering the only official American guidelines ever written for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document clearly outlines what a Mideast peace deal might look like and the role America would need to play in making that happen. Indyk suggests a few tweaks to the Clinton Parameters (which he had a hand in preparing), notably when he suggests that a special international regime be created in the Holy Basin–Old City area of Jerusalem. Some of the recommendations (such as engaging in peace efforts early in a new administration, and not waiting, as Bush did, until year eight) would be on most people’s checklist. Others are more innovative in the Washington context: Indyk supports a more active role for the Arab states. To build Palestinian national reconciliation he would like to see the deployment of multinational forces to help facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state (without replacing one occupying power with another), and have international support for Arab efforts to co-opt rather than confront Hamas. (I would be in favor of all of these, including the last, although unlike Indyk I would suggest that no single Arab state play an exclusive role in mediating internal Palestinian dialogue.)

Martin Indyk is candid and self-critical enough to acknowledge that the peace team sometimes had "tin ears" when it came to understanding the true intentions of Israel’s leaders and were "poorly informed" on intra-Palestinian politics. Unfortunately, his book occasionally lapses into its own tin-eared moments. When there are dismissive references to the Palestinian "sense of entitlement" to all the territories occupied in 1967 or to a "perception of increased settlement activity" during the 1990s (the settler population did increase, by more than 100,000), the credibility of the book is harmed, as it is when the Israeli-Jordanian peace and King Hussein’s outreach to the Israeli public is described as a model for securing future Israeli concessions. What concessions? Israel essentially withdrew from no land and gave up no settlements in making peace with Jordan.

These nuances may be trivial, but they can skew the U.S.-Israel relationship or U.S. policy in a way that is utterly unhelpful to both U.S. and Israeli interests. Innocent Abroad is full of anecdotes (some with explicit lessons, some implied, others perhaps unintentional) that, taken together, produce an inescapable policy prescription: that the management of the U.S.-Israel relationship needs to be recalibrated, for everyone’s benefit. We are told that on many occasions the Clinton administration "took an Israeli idea and turned it into an American proposal." The result of this was that the very deals from which Israel, the United States, and others would have so greatly benefited were made more difficult to achieve. America’s diplomats are frequently depicted as dancing to a tune spun out in Jerusalem. And the outcome is rarely pretty, for either the U.S. or Israel. (It is notable that American presidents have a slightly better track record when it comes to handling recalcitrant leaders of the right—no small thing, given the prospects that Benjamin Netanyahu will return to the Israeli premiership after February’s election.)

To suggest that the United States play the role of honest broker in the Middle East is almost seen as taboo in American political discourse, yet a reasonable reading of this book’s narration of the Clinton years suggests that only by taking a more balanced approach (note: more balanced, not totally balanced) can the U.S. be an effective broker. Part of that will depend on the team assembled to handle these matters under Obama. As Indyk reminds us, Clinton’s peace team was described in the Arab media as "the five rabbis," and a bit of diversity would certainly not be a bad thing. But that diversity is as much about openness to different approaches as it is about backgrounds. For example, take Robert Malley or Daniel Kurtzer, both "rabbis" according to the above definition, and who both served under Clinton in different capacities and have spent the last eight years challenging parts of the conventional thinking and talking to a more inclusive array of regional actors. While that might make them controversial picks, it also makes such voices indispensable around the U.S. policymaking table. Including Malley and/or Kurtzer in the Obama administration would send a signal that some of the lessons contained in Innocent Abroad have been internalized.

New thinking is also required in Congress. When discussing Iran policy, Indyk describes how "our own zealots on Capitol Hill" managed to split the United States from its European allies by passing the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act in 1996, thereby undermining Clinton administration efforts to maintain a united front in containing Iran. The knee-jerk congressional habit of running to the right of the executive (any executive—Congress even outflanked Bush from the right in opposing Palestinian aid, for instance) needs to be redressed.

Indyk is very critical of the Bush policy on Iran, of subcontracting the negotiations to the Europeans and placing preconditions on direct U.S.-Iranian talks, favoring engagement across the range of bilateral issues. The point that he constantly returns to in discussing the Iran file, both in the past and in the future, is the need for a credible American initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as a vital component in reducing Iran’s regional influence and leverage. A book that is organized around the tapestry of interacting issues in the Middle East, in which "everything is connected here," inevitably ends up advocating for a more thoughtful connecting of the dots in regional policy, and the central dot is the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I would read Indyk as an antidote to the naysayers who insist that "[t]he time for peace isn’t ripe, Israelis and Palestinians are in disarray, little can be done." It is not enough to say that one needs to effectively address Israel-Palestine; one must also chart a course of how to do it: ripeness can be created, the regional strategic context can be reshaped, and many of the ingredients are contained in Innocent Abroad. I might add some, and blend them slightly differently, but Indyk gives us a good baseline recipe with which to start experimenting.

 

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 14, 2009 3:01 PM.

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