Innocence Lost

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Reviewed by Cameron W. Barr
Sunday, February 1, 2009


An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East

By Martin Indyk

Simon & Schuster. 494 pp. $30

The scene: Camp David, July 2000. As President Clinton's attempt to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians collapses, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is gamely trying to persuade the two sides to press on. An angry Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak storms out after one meeting, muttering to Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel: "I'm fed up with this improvisation!"

By the time we reach this moment, three-quarters of the way through Indyk's candid but depressing memoir of his years as a U.S. diplomat and negotiator, we appreciate mightily Barak's frustration. Innocent Abroad is Indyk's unflinching examination of the Clinton administration's bridge-too-far diplomacy in the Middle East: its failure to reach comprehensive peace deals between Israel and Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians; its missteps in engaging Iran and containing Iraq; and its role in "shaping the environment" for the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, a success that Indyk acknowledges had "limited implications for the broader balance of power in the region."

This is a lessons-learned book, complete with sober, uninspiring advice for the next administration: lowered sights, more realism, less naivete. Appearing at a time when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are promising renewed engagement in the Middle East, Indyk's book is revealing as a sometimes unwitting testament to the blinders and biases of U.S. officials who seek to broker peace.

Indyk is a leading defender of the proposition that "American presidents can be more successful when they put their arms around Israeli prime ministers and encourage them to move forward, rather than attempt to browbeat them into submission." Time and again, he displays a nuanced and sympathetic understanding of Israel's leaders and their political predicaments, but his knowledge of the people on the other side of the Arab-Israeli conflict is much less evident.

He is very nearly dismissive in rendering their views: "Arabs, particularly Palestinians, often argue that the Middle East conflict is caused by Israeli occupation of their land, that if only Israel would agree to withdraw fully from the territory occupied in the June 1967 war, there would be peace and security for all." He later maintains that "whenever Israel and an Arab state have engaged in peace negotiations, Israel's leaders have been prepared to offer or agree to full withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 lines," citing past talks with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

In fact, Lebanon and Israel remain in disagreement over a border territory known as Shebaa Farms, and Syria was not offered the complete withdrawal upon which its late President Hafez al-Assad had insisted. During Clinton's unsuccessful attempt to broker an Israeli-Syrian accord, as Indyk himself writes, Barak sought to preserve control over a narrow band of territory so Israel would not have to cede any of the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

Indyk quotes former National Security Adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger equating Syrian insistence on full withdrawal with the Palestinians' determination to have their capital in Jerusalem: "We thought it was a matter of meters but for them it turned out to be a matter of principle." It bears noting that the Palestinians have never been offered full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, even though it is as much a matter of principle for them as it has been for other Arabs.

Like many other insider accounts of the failure to achieve a peace deal at Camp David in 2000, Innocent Abroad faults Yasser Arafat for lacking the requisite courage and vision. The book begins with Clinton on his final day in office warning Colin Powell, the future secretary of state, not to "ever trust that son of a bitch," meaning Arafat. "He lied to me and he'll lie to you," Indyk quotes Clinton as saying. "Don't let Arafat sucker punch you like he did me."

Indyk notes that Arafat's defenders say he balked at Camp David because he was "preoccupied with avoiding any dilution of the U.N. resolutions that formed the terms of reference for the solution of the Palestinian problem." But the "real explanation," Indyk writes, "is more straightforward. Arafat had been seeking an escape route from the moment he arrived at Camp David." Indyk's dismissal of Arafat's position betrays an inadequate recognition of the importance of principle -- as rightly identified by Berger -- to Palestinians, Syrians and others. Those U.N. resolutions (one of which calls for Israel's "withdrawal from territories occupied" in 1967 and the end of belligerency as the bases for peace) have indeed become undilutable for Arabs, in part because they undergirded Israel's accord with Egypt.

Indyk repeatedly uses words such as ignorance, arrogance and innocence to explain U.S. mistakes. But he himself might be considered ignorant (at least) in stating that Palestinians refer to May 15 as the Naqba, or disaster, "because it commemorates the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948." It would be more accurate to say that Palestinians use the term to mark the experience of hundreds of thousands of their forebears, who fled or were forced to flee their homes in what is now Israel.

Indyk appears not to have visited the Gaza Strip, lately the scene of yet more terrible violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps he should tour the Jabalya refugee camp, where some of those 1948 refugees and many of their descendants live. They could tell him why May 15 is called the Naqba, and why principle matters to them. ยท

Cameron W. Barr, a Post deputy foreign editor, was a 2003 Pulitzer finalist for his coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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