Itamar Rabinovich's review of Martin Indyk's book: Innocent Abroad" (as published by Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 28, Number 2, winter 2010)
Martin Indyk, Innocent Abroad, Simon and Schuster, NY, 2009.
Almost a decade after Bill Clinton's departure from the White House his ambitious effort to resolve the Arab Israeli Conflict and its failure remain the focus of considerable attention and an acrimonious debate. The preoccupation with and controversy over the diplomatic record of a previous administration- well beyond the customary academic interest -are the product of an unusual convergence.
For one thing, the problems addressed by the Clinton Administration -the Israeli Palestinian and Israeli Syrian conflicts - remain acute issues on the Middle Eastern and international agendas. The Obama Administration's decision to assign a high priority to the resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and to try early on to open dialogues with Iran and Syria raised fresh interest in the failure of an earlier Democratic administration to implement a similar program. Some of the actors in the diplomacy of the 1990's are still in place and some are back - Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's Prime Minister and Ehud Barak as Minister of Defence. And if Bill Clinton is not back, his wife, as Secretary of State, is designated to play a major role.
Of Bill Clinton's "peace process team" only one member, Dennis Ross, has been recruited by the new administration and his apparent role is different, dealing with The Persian Gulf and South West Asia. But several members of that peace team have written books drawing on their experience: Dennis Ross (a detailed account of the peace process and a book on statecraft), Aron Miller (a book critical of US policy and advocating a tougher approach and less coordination with Israel) and Dan Kurtzer (who co authored a book on US peacemaking in the Middle East).
Martin Indyk's Innocent Abroad is the latest account of Clinton's policy in the Middle East. Mindful of the territory covered by his predecessors, Indyk chose to focus his book on Bill Clinton, his team and his effort to restructure the Middle East and to resolve the Arab Israeli Conflict and to describe and analyze from his unusually rich perspective - Senior Director for the Middle East at the NSC, Ambassador to Israel (twice) and Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Near Eastern Bureau - what was attempted and what went wrong during that extraordinary period. The outcome is not yet another peace process memoir but a well written, absorbing and insightful book. The book's value is enhanced by Indyk'd frankness in depicting his superiors and colleagues and by his willingness to digress every so often from the narrative and to provide an in depth analysis of an important issue.
As the title of his book suggests, Indyk believes that US presidents like Bill Clinton (and in a different fashion, George W Bush) had to be disabused of a great deal of innocence (and in fact also hubris) when they set out to restructure the Middle East or to resolve the Arab Israeli Conflict and encountered the complexity of the region. But tough or insurmountable as the challenge may be US presidents feel that they cannot ignore such major problems in a crucial part of the world and are often fascinated and tempted by the unusual stage and the characters who populate it only to find out that even the world's most powerful leader is unable to overcome an awesome set of obstacles:
"They will run up against the same structural impediments described in this book: the resistance of Arab leaders to change; the factiousness of Israeli politics; Palestinian dysfunctionalism and the vulnerability of any political process to endemic violence and terrorism"
In order to understand fully what Indyk means by these "structural impediments" it would be useful to take a closer look at his account and interpretation of three of the most controversial episodes of that period.
The first concerns one of the most important turning points in the evolution of the Madrid Process : Rabin's decision in August 1993 to sign the Oslo Accord rather than proceed with the Syrian track after having deposited with Secretary of State Christopher a conditional willingness to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for a package of peace and security comparable to the one given at the time by Anwar Sadat to Menachem Begin. As Rabin's negotiator with Syria and ambassador in Washington I attributed the failure of this gambit to Rabin's disappointment with Asad's response to his bold move (Yes in principle but a very low counter offer) and with Christopher's decision to pass on this response rather than tell Asad that it was unacceptable). Indyk has an entirely different interpretation. As he sees it, Rabin intended all along to make his first deal with the PLO and the whole purpose of the Syrian gambit was simply to put pressure on Arafat in order to extract from him a better deal. Small wonder, then, that the Secretary of State and his team felt used and angry.
In the division between "Syria firsters" and "Palestine firsters" Indyk was a prominent member of the first group and the collapse of the decade long effort to resolve the Israeli Syrian conflict occupies a significant portion of his book.
The final round in that effort took place during Ehud Barak's tenure as Israel's Prime Minister. Barak himself was a "Syria firsters" and after several months of unsuccessful overtures Asad agreed in December 1999 to send his Foreign Minister to Washington in order to resume (indeed upgrade) the negotiation with Israel and indicated to his American interlocutors that he was anxious to conclude. And yet, tantalizingly auspicious as the moment seemed, it ended in failure -first at the unsuccessful session in Shepherdstown and finally during Clinton and Asad's brief disastrous summit in Geneva in March 2000. There is not a simple or a single explanation for this failure. Most American accounts and memoirs are critical of Barak for not being more forthcoming in Shepherdstown, but they are hard put to explain the rapid collapse of the Geneva Summit. Indyk is critical of Barak but he does present a much richer account which points also to American errors, to Asad's physical and mental decline and to such uncontrollable developments as the leaking from Shepherdstown of a draft that embarrassed the Syrians and hardened their position (the search is still on for the American and Israeli accomplices in this deliberate sabotage that was apparently designed to derail the Israeli Syrian negotiation and set the stage for a final status Israeli Palestinian negotiation).
The collapse of the Israeli Syrian track did indeed result in a shift of emphasis to a an Israeli Palestinian final status negotiation. The failure of that effort at Camp David in July 2000 and the subsequent outbreak of the "second Intifada" remain an acutely controversial issue. In the immediate aftermath of the failure of the Camp David summit President Clinton, Dennis Ross and other American spokesmen minced no words in blaming Yasser Arafat for rejecting Ehud Barak's far reaching offer. Barak and his Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben Ami shared the same line. This American-Israeli "orthodoxy" was first assailed by another member of the US peace team, Robert Malley, who together with the Lebanese scholar Hussein Agha argued that more blame for the failure lay with Ehud Barak than with Yasser Arafat. Since then Arafat's American critics have moderated their tone, realizing that strident criticism of Arafat and an explicit exculpation of Israel were liable to jeopardize Washington and their own effectiveness as future mediators.
After taking the reader through a detailed account of the ups and (mostly) downs of the Camp David Summit, Indyk offers his own judgment. As an effort to breach a final status agreement Camp David was doomed to fail. Ehud Barak wanted to "trap" Arafat into a final status agreement using the American president's leverage. A deft Yasser Arafat found a way out of the trap by using the loaded issue of sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Had the conference been convened as "a preliminary summit" it might have been and could actually be seen as successful, given the distance covered, but as a dramatic, conclusive act it was stillborn. Indyk does not believe that Arafat's conduct during the summit betrayed an underlying, deceitful unwillingness to accept the Jewish state that was "unmasked" by Barak. Arafat was not necessarily opposed to a final status agreement, but he certainly did not want it in the particular context of July 2000.
In sum, this is an important absorbing book, mandatory reading to anyone interested in Middle Eastern recent history and diplomacy and US foreign policy.