Ambassador Martin Indyk’s address last week to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, castigating Israel for “rampant settlement activity,” featured assertions that, as Elliott Abrams and Tom Wilson have noted, were simply wrong. Settlement activity was not rampant, and almost all of it was in areas Israel would retain under any peace agreement. Indyk nevertheless made it clear he subscribes to the “poof” theory of peace-process failure.
Even more troubling than Indyk’s prepared remarks, however, were his unscripted replies in the Q & A session. By pre-arrangement, he took only three questions–all from the Institute’s executive director, Robert Satloff. In response to the first, about settlements, Indyk said he had no idea what Satloff was talking about. In response to the second, about Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk misstated the year Israel first raised the issue–by 14 years. In response to the third, about the U.S. role in the process, Indyk acknowledged that Mahmoud Abbas was “quite content to sit back and enjoy the show” of Israeli-American disharmony, but Indyk said it was a “puzzle” to figure out “what happened” after that.
I think I can help here. I know what Satloff was talking about; I know when recognition of a Jewish state was first raised; and I have a theory about Abbas that might solve the mystery that puzzled Indyk.
In his first question, Satloff noted that an “unnamed American diplomat” (reliably reported to have been Martin Indyk) told the Israeli media that settlements were the reason talks ended, but Satloff informed Indyk that others took a different view, believing Prime Minister Netanyahu, far from authorizing “rampant” settlement activity, in fact limited it, but had failed to “take public credit for how little there was,” lest he isolate the Israeli right. Indyk replied:
I’ve not heard of this second account — it doesn’t make any sense to me — and I honestly don’t understand what it means. Maybe someone else can explain it to me.
Allow me. When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, he sought to correct what he saw as the main error in his first term (1996-99): governing from a narrow political base. In his second term, he formed as wide a coalition as possible to negotiate peace. Ron Dermer, currently Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., described Netanyahu’s approach in 2009. The approach gave Netanyahu support across the Israeli political spectrum, so he could explore a different path to peace than those that had failed. He supported the principle that Jews could build anywhere in their capital or in the disputed territories, while in practice significantly limited actual building. Indyk’s ungracious (not to say undiplomatic) response to Satloff’s question demonstrates that Indyk was oblivious to this.
In his reply to Satloff’s second question, on the Palestinian refusal to discuss recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk seemed to accept Abbas’s assertion this was “a new requirement.” Just two months earlier, though, Ambassador Dennis Ross stated unequivocally that it was first raised in 2000, and he had pointed words for those who pretend otherwise:
When I hear it said that this is the first time this issue has been raised – the people who say that think that no one knows history… When we were at Camp David [in 2000], this issue was raised.
The Palestinians still refuse to recognize a Jewish state 14 years later. Credulous journalists may report the issue as a last-minute obstacle, but one would not have expected the current U.S. peace envoy to permit such disinformation to stand.
Replying to Satloff’s third question, musing on the mystery of Abbas’s withdrawal from serious negotiations after he observed the American-Israeli split, Indyk seemed oblivious to the fact that this was precisely the strategy Abbas announced in 2009 in the Washington Post: that he planned to do “nothing” in the peace process but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu on settlements. This year, Abbas resorted yet again to the pretext of settlements as a reason to abandon negotiations.
Abbas bet that an American administration that conducts its foreign policy like a troupe of innocents abroad would once again blame Israel. Indyk’s appalling performance last week demonstrated it was a good bet.