Where Angels Should Fear to Tread

Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy
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Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy

Innocent Abroad An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East, by Martin Indyk Simon & Schuster, 512 pages, $28

Just the thought of another book about Middle East policy under former U.S. president Bill Clinton might make the most stout-hearted readers quake - but they would be well-advised to consider Martin Indyk's "Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East." 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 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 the subsequent rightward turn in domestic Israeli politics - 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 Hillary Clinton 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.

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 is reminiscent of the series of peace breakthroughs in the 1990s - the various Oslo agreements, for instance, under 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 Barack Obama's agenda. 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 seed the ground for the disaster that followed. Partly this is an acknowledgement of mistakes he participated in making, partly it bemoans the excesses of Bush's approach to the region.

If Obama is to pursue a policy of "I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place," 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 feasible, particularly if the evolution in Indyk's thinking is at all indicative of Hillary Clinton's approach. And, as Indyk reminds us, the United States limits its options as well as its influence when it is talking to fewer actors in the region.

Indyk's recounting of Israel's and Syria's attempts at rapprochement makes for some compelling reading. The blame Indyk assigns to then-prime minister Ehud Barak (though not exclusively to him) for the failure of those talks caused a stir in Israel when excerpts of the book were published in Hebrew 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 Bill Clinton's fury at Barak for "gaming" him is riveting. (Barak had insisted on a summit with the Syrians and then, at the first meeting, backtracked on his own proposals. When he again called on Clinton to host a parley with the Palestinians at Camp David, the United States dutifully played host. This time around, Barak informed Indyk on the flight from Tel Aviv to Andrews Air Force base that "he had not had time to prepare for the meeting" - in spite of the fact that "he alone had insisted upon" the confab, Indyk writes.)

The ultimate demise of these efforts came on March 26, 2000, in Geneva, when an exhausted Clinton (on his way back from Asia) met the ailing Syrian president, Hafez Assad, who died just two months later. 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 Uri Saguy as they negotiated the thorny issues of demarcating a future Israeli-Syrian border and re-delineating the 1967 boundaries between the two states.

As a new administration has taken office, there is some debate over 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 United States should also reengage bilaterally with Syria and support the Israeli-Syrian talks previously 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 - for instance, by causing Hamas to recalibrate its regional options and probably soften its negotiating stance. In doing so, Indyk rejects a version of the "Syria first" line sometimes promoted in Washington, one that would relegate the Palestinian issue to an afterthought.

I agree with Indyk's logic, but with one caveat: Indyk adopts the conventional wisdom that Israel cannot pursue deals on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks simultaneously, that it can hold talks with both but achieve closure on only one track at a time. I would suggest that this thinking may well be outdated. In fact, only a comprehensive deal may now make sense - one that closes bilateral peace deals between Israel and its neighbors and also 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.

Special handshake

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 handshake technique developed by U.S. diplomats to ensure that the "no-kissing rule" was adhered to when greeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Or the sometimes extreme lengths to which then-secretary of state Warren Christopher would go 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; they offer 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 guidelines (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; for instance, 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 - though unlike Indyk, I would suggest that Egypt not play an exclusive role in mediating internal Palestinian dialogue.)

Indyk is candid and self-critical enough to acknowledge that the U.S. 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 either American or Israeli interests. "Innocent Abroad" is full of anecdotes (some with explicit lessons, some implied and 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 America 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 that Benjamin Netanyahu has again been charged with the task of forming a government under his premiership.)

The 'five rabbis'

To suggest that the United States play the role of honest broker in the Middle East is seen as almost taboo in American political discourse, yet a reasonable reading of this book's narration of the Clinton presidency suggests that only by taking a more balanced - though not completely evenhanded - approach can the United States be an effective broker. Part of that will depend on the performance of 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. Obama surprised many by heeding this advice and appointing Senator George Mitchell (who is of Lebanese and Irish descent) to be his special Middle East peace envoy.

Ultimately, though, success will depend more on determination and openness to new approaches than to the backgrounds of the practitioners. Obama has so far delivered on his campaign pledge to work from the earliest days of his administration on Israeli-Palestinian peace, defining the issue as an American national security priority and dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mitchell to the region.

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 he constantly returns to in discussing Iran, 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 read Indyk as an antidote to the naysayers who insist, as he puts it, 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 the Israeli-Palestinian issue - one must also chart a course of how to do it. Ripeness can be created by whoever is in power on the Israeli or Palestinian sides and the regional strategic context can be reshaped; 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.

This is a revised version of an article copyrighted and published by the Washington Monthly (www.washingtonmonthly.com). Reprinted with permission.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Prime Minister's Office and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.