JERUSALEM — Among the trove of e-mails released by the State Department on Monday night is an unflattering 2010 assessment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and peace negotiator.
In the e-mail to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Indyk said Netanyahu was missing a historic opportunity to close a deal with the Palestinians because he was obsessed with preserving his ruling coalition, feared being branded a sucker and erroneously thought himself the consummate wheeler-dealer in a Middle East bazaar.
The Indyk memo was one of 7,000 pages of e-mails, dating from 2009 and 2010, to and from Clinton, released Monday. The e-mails contain mostly mundane bureaucratic back-and-forth, a little gossip, some Washington-style sycophancy — and a few gems of diplomatic insight.
“At heart, he seems to lack a generosity of spirit,” Indyk wrote in his September 2010 read on Netanyahu. “This combines with his legendary fear of being seen as a ‘freier’ (sucker) in front of his people to create a real problem in the negotiations, especially because he holds most of the cards.”
Indyk wrote that Netanyahu saw himself as a wily negotiator in the 2010 peace talks with the Palestinians when instead he “uses up a lot of goodwill” that “raises doubts about his seriousness.”
Indyk, a London-born Jew who emigrated to the United States, served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and from 2000 to 2001. He also served as a special Middle East envoy and negotiator during Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s unsuccessful nine-month bid for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal last year. He is currently the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution.
When Indyk offered his assessment to Clinton in 2010, he was serving as an unpaid senior adviser to George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace. Indyk’s memo was based on a fact-finding trip he took to Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Context is important here. The memo was written in late September of 2010, as the U.S.-led direct talks between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu, called by his nickname “Bibi” in the e-mails, were breaking down.
A 10-month partial freeze on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had ended, and Netanyahu was refusing to extend the moratorium unless Abbas agreed to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.”
At the time, Netanyahu was also struggling to hold his coalition government together; he argued that he did not have support within his government to extend the construction freeze; settlers threatened to bring him down, and so did his arch-rival, the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, then serving as foreign minister.
“In this context, Bibi's negotiating tactics become self-defeating,” Indyk wrote. “Believing that he is a great negotiator, and that he is operating in the Middle East bazaar, he inflates his requirements well beyond anything reasonable in the belief that this is the best way to secure the highest price.”
A bit like the carpet dealer — that old trope — who asks for $1,000 but will take $100.
“In the end, under great pressure from all quarters, he will make the final concession, but only after wasting a lot of time, making everybody furious with him, and thereby securing no credit either with his supporters or negotiating partners,” Indyk wrote.
Reached via e-mail on Tuesday while on vacation, Indyk told The Washington Post that his experience as a top peace negotiator in 2014 with Netanyahu and Abbas “did nothing to alter my 2010 assessment.”
Indyk said he would have preferred that his advice to Clinton had remained private, “but five years have passed since I wrote it, so I don’t think it’s going to make any difference. For 25 years I have been an advocate working with Israel’s leaders rather than against them, and this memo is an accurate reflection of that approach.”
In his advice to Clinton, Indyk urged her to “put your arm around Bibi: he still thinks we are out to bring him down” and “try to find a way to make him understand that his negotiating tactics are counterproductive to his own purposes.”
The memo is interesting, too, as a nostalgia trip.
In 2010, both Clinton and Obama said there could be peace between Israelis and the Palestinians in a year.
Also, as Indyk reminded Clinton, “Bibi needs President Obama in his corner to deal with the threat from Iran and to avoid punishment by the voters for mishandling relations with the U.S.”
Flash-forward to 2015, when Netanyahu is rewarded with a historic fourth term after directly confronting a sitting U.S. president over the peace process and Iran's nuclear ambitions. A few months later, he accuses Obama of selling out Israel in a bad nuclear deal with Iran.