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By John Hudson
As the White House pins down a date in the coming weeks for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington, Martin Indyk has emerged as a frontrunner to lead the negotiations for the United States. Perhaps it's a good sign for the talks that Israeli backers and Palestinian backers, however grudingly, find him to be a palatable choice.
A seasoned negotiator and obsessive student of the protracted conflict, Indyk, if selected, will have another shot at bridging the Palestinian-Israeli divide against all odds.
"Martin has a long history of involvement and he knows all the players. Even more importantly, he knows the issues very well and what each side feels it needs on them," Dennis Ross, a former Mid East advisor to President Obama and counselor at the Washington Institute, told The Cable. "There is no substitute for that knowledge and that awareness -- and each side knows Martin has that knowledge."
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry declared after a frenetic bout of shuttle diplomacy that an agreement was reached establishing a "basis" for resuming talks between Israel and Palestine, which in turn followed the announcement by senior Israeli minister Yuval Steinitz that long-serving Palestinian prisoners would be released.
The focus now shifts to Kerry's choice to take the lead in the talks.
As was first reported by Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen, Kerry's choice of Indyk is rumored to have already been accepted by both Israelis and Palestinians. Though Foggy Bottom officials insist "no decision has been made," that hasn't stopped observers of the region from weighing in on his apparent selection.
Indyk served as assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration and also served a stint at the National Security Council. In 1995, President Bill Clinton selected him as U.S. ambassador to Israel to work with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the Oslo peace process. But his journeys to the region didn't end there. In 2000, Indyk was sent again as ambassador to Israel in 2000 to work with Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The effort failed and ultimately preceded the second Palestinian intifada.
Though Indyk, like other Arab-Israeli negotiators, has had more than his share of disappointments, supporters say he brings a strong grasp of the issues.
"Any negotiator or mediator must have that awareness to avoid the impulse of having each side spend time arguing for their needs instead of addressing how their needs can be met by finding a way to satisfy the other side," Ross told The Cable. "Martin is superbly well qualified to play this role and is an excellent choice."
Nonetheless, some on the Palestinian side have raised questions about Indyk's supposed neutrality, given his work as a deputy research director at the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee in the ‘80s and later the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which maintains ties to AIPAC.
"I think it's problematic," said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund. "Martin is more reasonable than many in Washington ... the problem is that Martin does have a background on the pro-Israel side and if the U.S. is trying to establish itself as an even-handed mediator, that doesn't help."
Still, Munayyer did not dispute the likelihood that Palestinian leaders signed off on Indyk's appointment. "I think there's a realization among the leadership of the Palestinians that Washington is a very pro-Israel place and on the spectrum of Martin Indyk and someone further to the right, it could be a lot worse," he said.
Meanwhile, support for Indyk on the pro-Israel side remains ironclad. "Ambassador Indyk has an important historical perspective on issues at hand, an understanding of Israel's unique security needs, and long-standing relationships with the key decision makers," said Josh Block, CEO of the Israel Project and a former AIPAC official. "If the Palestinians are ready to be honest with their people about the kind of difficult compromises these negotiations will require, and sincere about making peace with Israel, he could be the right person to help shepherd negotiations forward."
Indyk today heads the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution (where, full disclosure, he oversees the work of FP's Noah Shachtman, who is a fellow there). Born to a Jewish family in London, England and raised in a Sydney, Australia suburb, Indyk has openly confronted criticisms of his biography. In his 2009 book, Innocent Abroad, Indyk addressed the impact his Jewish and pro-Israel background had on perceptions of his role as a diplomat in the Clinton administration.
"The fact that I had begun my Washington career eleven years earlier working at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC, often referred to as 'the Israel lobby') only reinforced the image in much of the Arab world and among pro-Arab Americans that Clinton's policy had been taken over by a Jewish cabal," he wrote. "Behind that stereotyping lay the reality that our Jewish identities generated a deep desire in all of us to make peace since we all believed that Israel's security depended on ending the conflict with its Arab neighbors and that American interests would be well served by doing so."