What the appointment of Martin Indyk as US special envoy tells us

Appointing the former ambassador to Israel for Israel-Palestine negotiations was nothing beyond the usual status quo.

Martin Indyk
Secretary of State John Kerry recently appointed known pro-Israeli Martin Indyk as US special envoy [Reuters]

It was to be expected. It was signalled in advance. And yet it is revealing.

The only other candidates considered for the job were equally known as Israeli partisans: Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel before becoming Commissioner of Israel’s Baseball League and Dennis Ross, co-founder in the 1980s (with Indyk) of the AIPAC-backed Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy who handled the 2000 Camp David negotiations on behalf of Clinton.

The winner among these three was Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel (1995-97; 2000-01), onetime AIPAC employee, British born, Australian educated American diplomat.

It would have been easy for Kerry to create a more positive format if he had done either of two things: appointed a Palestinian or at least someone of Middle Eastern background as co-envoy to the talks.

Does it not seem strange for the United States, the convening party and the unconditional supporter of Israel, to rely exclusively for diplomatic guidance in this concerted effort to revive the peace talks on persons with such strong and unmistakable pro-Israeli credentials?

What is stranger, still, is that the media never bothers to observe this peculiarity of a negotiating framework in which the side with massive advantages in hard and soft power, as well as great diplomatic leverage, needs to be further strengthened by having the mediating third-party so clearly in its corner. Is this numbness or bias? Are we so used to a biased framework that it is taken for granted, or is it overlooked because it might spoil the PR effect if mentioned out loud?

John Kerry, the Secretary of State, whose show this is, dutifully indicated when announcing the Indyk appointment that success in the negotiations will depend on the willingness of the two sides to make “reasonable compromises”. But who will decide on what is reasonable? Can one trust such a determination to a third-party that is unabashedly the political ally of Israel?

Can one even begin to contemplate, except in despair, what Binyamin Netanyahu and his pro-settler cabinet consider reasonable compromises?

It would have been easy for Kerry to create a more positive format if he had done either of two things: appointed a Palestinian or at least someone of Middle Eastern background as co-envoy to the talks. Rashid Khalidi, President Obama’s onetime Chicago friend and neighbour, would have been a reassuring choice for the Palestinian side.

Inside Story – Israeli-Palestinian talks: A road to peace?

Admittedly, having published a book a few months ago with the title Brokers of Deceit: How the US Undermined Peace in the Middle East, the appointment of Khalidi, despite his stellar credentials, would have produced a firestorm in Washington. Agreed, Khalidi is beyond serious contemplation, but what about John Esposito, Chas Freeman, Ray Close? None of these alternatives, even Khalidi, is as close to the Palestinians as Indyk is to the Israelis, and yet such a selection would at least be a gesture toward closing the credibility gap. Yet it remains outside the boundaries of the Beltway’s political imagination, and is thus unthinkable.

There is a sense that Kerry is sincere in seeking to broker a solution to the conflict, yet this way of proceeding does not raise hopes. Perhaps, there was no viable alternative. Israel would not come even to negotiate negotiations without being reassured in advance by an Indyk-like appointment. And if Israel had signalled its disapproval, Washington would be paralysed.

The only remaining question is why the Palestinian Authority goes along so meekly. What is there to gain in such a setting? Having accepted the Washington auspices, why could they not have demanded, at least, a more neutral or balanced negotiating envoy? I fear the answer to such questions is “blowin’ in the wind”.

And so we can expect to witness yet another charade falsely advertised as “the peace process”. Such a diversion is costly for the Palestinians and beneficial for the Israelis. Settlement expansion and associated projects will continue, the occupation with all its rigours and humiliations will continue, and the prospects for a unified Palestinian leadership will be put on indefinite hold. Not a pretty picture. 

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.