Are there Indyk-ators of success for America's new Mideast peace envoy?

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Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam

Over the last 23 years, successive U.S. administrations have appointed several envoys for the daunting job of achieving a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Martin Indyk, America’s new emissary, brings a unique set of tools to the job, according to those who know him, blending personal relations with pragmatism, an understanding of the issues, and a "likability factor."

Indyk, who grew up in Sydney, Australia, is no stranger to peacemaking efforts. His appointment as U.S. special envoy on Monday sums up a long journey of working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, twice as an ambassador to Israel. After leaving the government in 2001, he went to head the Saban center at the Brookings Institution, a prominent think tank in Washington, where he later became vice president and director of foreign policy.


Personal relations

Those who know Indyk, speak of a qualified negotiator, who knows the players and the game of the Middle East peace process inside out. He is “a complete negotiator” says Salman Sheikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, who has known Indyk since 2000 and had a long working relationship with him.

Sheikh, in a phone call with Al Arabiya, describes Indyk as an "extremely warm and likable” persona and as someone who is “not shy to show tough love” when he needs to. It is an attribute that Indyk has used over the years, ruffling Israeli feathers at times in policy clashes with current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he dealt with during the Clinton years.

Those who know Indyk, speak of a qualified negotiator, who knows the players and the game of the Middle East peace process inside out.

Joyce Karam

Indyk’s ability to “maintain good relations with people on opposing sides of the spectrum” is something that will come handy in navigating current Palestinian and Israeli politics, says Ziad Asali, the President of the American Task Force on Palestine. Asali speaks of Indyk’s exceptional ability to walk very thin diplomatic lines, and manage to be on good terms with both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. Asali tells Al Arabiya that Indyk, who comes from a Jewish heritage, has distinguished himself in having had good relations with different Palestinian leaders, even when they were disagreeing amongst themselves. He cites Indyk’s good standing with former PLO chief Yasser Arafat, his successor, current President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as such examples. Indyk utilized the same skill in Israeli politics, in his ability to maintain good relations with Netanyahu despite disagreeing with him, and with his Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Regionally, Salman Sheikh says Indyk helped build bridges with leaders in the Gulf during his time at Brookings. In addition to Qatar, Indyk improved ties with leaders in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Sheikh also notes Indyk’s friendship with Egypt’s new Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, who is in a crucial position to any peace efforts.

Indyk’s positions

A lot has been said about Indyk’s work in the early 80s as deputy research director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a group that strongly supports and advocates Israeli policies in Washington. For both Asali and Sheikh, however, Indyk’s positions and views today have evolved and are broader and more encompassing than they were three decades ago.

“He has learned and changed over the years” says Asali, who sees Indyk today as both pro-Israel and pro-two state solution. The idea of a Palestinian state was not introduced and accepted in Washington until later in the Clinton years, and officially with the George W. Bush administration. Today, Indyk sees the window on the two state solution closing, and his effort as the last chance to see it through.

In an interview in Doha last month during the U.S.-Islamic forum hosted by Brookings, Indyk told the pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry does not want the window for the two-state solution to close on his watch, and that is why he has taken up the challenge to resurrect the peace process and pursue a final status agreement in nine months. Indyk sees the Arab Peace Initiative, introduced in 2002 by Saudi Arabia, as a core component of any peace effort, in granting Abbas “an Arab league cover” something that Arafat did not have during Camp David.

The new envoy is under no illusions, he spoke of “many hurdles” along the way. The "split on the Palestinian side (between Fatah and Hamas), the nature of the Netanyahu government with a majority against a two-state solution makes it difficult for Netanyahu to commit to territorial concessions,” are among a few hurdles he mentions.

Indyk points out that Abbas wants a deal but lacks the ability to achieve it, while Netanyahu has the ability but maybe not the desire to reach such a deal. Ironically, his success will hinge on striking a balance between Abbas’s ability and Netanyahu’s will, and achieving what a long line of U.S. envoys have failed at: a final Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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