What happens when a new US president makes Middle East diplomacy his top foreign policy objective? Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, a key player in the failed bid for Middle East peace in the 1990s, takes us back to the future to find out.
Innocent Abroad is a page-turner. It is a remarkably well-written account of the Oslo peace process during the administration of Bill Clinton. With a strong command of Middle East history, the former diplomat of Australian origin provides a fast-paced insider's view of senior decision-making during this fascinating yet dangerous era of US diplomacy.
The saga begins when Indyk tells Clinton it would be possible to broker four Arab-Israeli peace deals during the president's first term. Indyk recalls that Clinton, then a diplomatic neophyte, looked him in the eye and said, "I want to do that." Five weeks into Clinton's presidency, Indyk recalls, "Middle Eastern peacemaking was the only item on the agenda" in the first National Security Council meeting on March 3, 1993. As Indyk notes, Clinton had a "strong interest in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict to stabilize a region of vital concern." What Indyk neglects to note is that five days earlier, on February 26, Islamist radicals detonated a large bomb at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, killing six. Thus began the pattern whereby the quest for Middle East peace trumped national security.
Holding fast to the belief that it would be possible to reverse decades of Arab hatred toward Israel, "Syria first" was Indyk's conviction. This approach won out over that of fellow peace warriors Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, who insisted that the "core" issue of Palestinian-Israeli animus needed to be tackled first.
As events unfolded, Indyk's plans were overtaken by events. The Kurtzer-Miller approach prevailed due to unexpected progress via the Oslo peace process. Thus, Clinton became "the adopted parent of a newborn agreement conceived in a Norwegian test tube." Indyk, however, recalls with admirable honesty that there were numerous "warning signs" that raised doubts about "the sincerity of [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat's commitment to renounce terrorism." PLO maps made no reference to the existence of the State of Israel, for example. Arafat also insisted upon donning battle fatigues at the White House when he shook hands with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993.
With Palestinian-Israeli talks under way, the Clinton administration resumed its efforts to bring Syria to the table. Again, Indyk was derailed. This time, King Hussein of Jordan reached out to Rabin, culminating in a signing ceremony on the Arava border crossing between the two countries.
As Indyk recounts, Jordan was the only peace partner during this era that did not require cajoling. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the only agreement to endure.
This underscores a concept lost on the Clinton administration's peace team. One does not make peace with enemies. One makes peace with former enemies.
This is why the Palestinian track ultimately failed. As Indyk notes, although Arafat was offered 91 percent of the West Bank, 100% of the Gaza Strip and control over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem - an offer that exceeded the Clinton administration's expectations - he could not embrace peace with Israel.
Arafat made this crystal clear when he brazenly rejected Israel's historic and religious claim to Jerusalem. As Indyk recalls, "The ruins of the Temple were not there, [Arafat] insisted, and the demand for Jewish prayer there was nothing but a plot to steal Palestinian rights." Given this intransigent position, it is unclear why the US diplomats pressed for continued talks. Yet, continue they did, ultimately pushing Arafat to choose war over continued negotiation in the fall of 2000.
What is perhaps most baffling about this book is the title. The Clinton peace team in the 1990s was anything but innocent. While it may have been naïve about certain things, it pursued peace ruthlessly. Countless times, Indyk recalls that "Clinton exploded" with rage when Arab actors refused to compromise. Yet, Clinton continued to insist peace was possible. When the Israeli population lost confidence in the peace process and revoked the mandate of prime minister Ehud Barak, Clinton prodded Barak forward anyway. Clinton even sent political consultants to the Holy Land in an attempt to manipulate public opinion.
The possibility of peace was contrived in its final stages. But as Indyk recalls, the president was "thinking about his legacy" and sought to "wipe away the Monica Lewinsky stigma." So, what began as a well-intentioned effort to end the senseless violence in the region seems to have ended as a ruthless quest for personal glory.
Through all of the drama, Indyk's book is written in a largely dispassionate tone. However, the former ambassador does himself a disservice when he forgoes diplomacy to take gratuitous shots at former president George W. Bush. He charges that Bush chose to "forsake peacemaking for war-making." At best, this is an unfair characterization of the Bush Doctrine. Indyk himself notes that upon leaving the White House, Clinton warned Bush, "Don't ever trust that son of a bitch [Arafat]. He lied to me, and he'll lie to you." Bush heeded the words of his predecessor and wisely called for Palestinian political reform before attempting to reengage in peace diplomacy.
Still, unlike many lengthy memoirs written by other former US officials who attempt to embellish their record, Indyk's book is refreshingly straightforward. He states explicitly where the Clinton administration erred, and where signs of danger were ignored.
Indyk notes a sense of "personal responsibility" for the failures of the peace process, noting that the "journey has been a difficult and humbling one." He might do well to convey these sentiments to the new US administration that now signals an eagerness to pick up where Clinton left off.