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Martin Indyk and Innocent Abroad

[Archived from March 6, 2009]

When Martin Indyk came to Louisville on February 24 to promote his new book, Innocent Abroad, the large crowd the showed up at the Main Library was treated to a cogent analysis and comparison of U.S. policy in the Middle East as defined by several of the most recent presidents.

This veteran American diplomat explained, “This book is the culmination of a journey I began in 1973.” He had left his native Australia to study in Israel when the Yom Kippur War broke out. Indyk said he would stay awake at night listening for the U.S. planes bringing in replacement parts and to the BBC radio reports of Kissinger’s coming in to negotiate a ceasefire.

“It was then,” he said, “that I decided I would devote my life to understanding the role of the U.S. in resolving the Middle East conflict.”

Twenty years later, Indyk found himself helping make and implement U.S. policy in the Middle East when Bill Clinton became president in January 1993 and named Indyk his Middle East advisor.

The diplomat spoke of the “window of opportunity” he felt existed at the time due to the confluence of several international events, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait.

All of Israel’s neighbors were at the table, Indyk said, and Yitzhak Rabin had been elected “with a mandate to make peace.”

For two years, it seemed to go right. In 1993, Yasser Arafat and Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. In 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. And in 1995, there were secret negotiations underway with Syria, and Indyk believes a deal with Lebanon would have followed.

Then Rabin was assassinated and the process began to crater.

Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister and put together a narrow ruling coalition forming a right wing government.

Madeleine Albright was now secretary of state, and Indyk returned to advise her. The U.S. was now dealing with problems with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and a reformist president in Iran.

When Ehud Barak became Israel’s prime minister, he tried to finish Rabin’s work and asked Indyk to return. While the negotiations with the Palestinians were not going anywhere, Indyk said Syria’s Hafez Assad “was suddenly in a hurry” to reach an agreement with Israel. Unfortunately, his health failed and he died before an agreement could be reached. His son succeeded him and the opportunity was lost.

While the Syrian negotiations had been hot, Indyk said Yasser Arafat also became interested in making an agreement, fearing that if he did not act, he would be left behind. So Clinton convened the Camp David negotiations.

Under the Camp David proposals, Indyk said, the Palestinians would have gotten all of Gaza, 94-97 percent of the West Bank, a corridor between them, sovereignty in most of East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, and a just settlement on the refugee issue.

This was, however, near the end of Clinton’s term. When Assad died, Arafat’s advisers told him to “wait for George W. Bush. He’ll give you a better deal.” Arafat walked away, and Indyk regards the collapse of those talks as his greatest personal failure.

Unlike Clinton, Bush was unwilling to get deeply involved, preferring to let the Israelis and Palestinians pursue their own negotiations. As a result trust between the two evaporated and the opportunity was lost. The mess was left for the next president.

As he was writing Innocent Abroad, Indyk did not know Obama would be the next president. “So here we are again,” he observed, “16 years later and a new president will try again.”

In the book, Indyk explained, he considers what the U.S. can learn from past failure. Indyk says, the U.S. must learn more about the parties involved before charging into negotiations. Our attitude comes across as arrogance. We must be more humble and respectful, and set more modest goals.

He also believes it is better to try and fail than not to try. “Diplomacy is noble,” he said, and “not a sign of weakness.”
Bush, he contends, had the attitude, “We don’t do diplomacy. We do policy.”

He believes Obama will engage in sustained diplomacy.

Indyk also believes we have to look at the large picture and all the players in the Middle East. Where one conflict may seem insoluble for the moment, the opportunity to make progress on a different front may exist. He identified Iran today as the place most in need of our diplomatic attention, because it could destabilize the entire region and it poses a threat to all its neighbors. He believes an opportunity exists there today.

Whatever direction American diplomacy takes, Indyk pointed out, the president cannot make peace, but when the leaders decide to make peace, the president can help.

Following his formal talk, Indyk took questions from the audience.

The Jewish Community Federation cosponsored a reception for Indyk with the Library before the formal presentation.

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