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Indyk did not make aliyah, but he maintained strong ties with Israel. He visits the country frequently as a board member of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, and is known to have close ties with top Israeli journalists and politicians. He has often said, especially when speaking to Jewish audiences, that he was first drawn to the Middle East “through my Jewish identity and my connection to Israel.”
Indyk’s life story sets him apart from American peace negotiators of the past. He was born in England, grew up in Australia and moved to the United States only after establishing himself as an academic and foreign relations expert in Sydney.
His first position in Washington was with AIPAC, where he served as deputy research director. In 1985 he took part in the pro- Israel lobby’s first and only foray into the research world and became the founding director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank focused on the region. The institute has since shifted away from its initial affiliation with AIPAC and no longer has formal ties to the lobby.
President Clinton brought Indyk, who advised him on Middle East issues during the presidential campaign, into his administration as director of Near Eastern affairs at the National Security Council, one day after Indyk received his American citizenship. In 1995 he was appointed ambassador to Israel, the first Jewish and the first foreign-born American representative posted there. Indyk served in Tel Aviv until September 1997 and made history once again in 2000, when he was appointed for another term as ambassador.
Working with the Israelis as ambassador at the height of peace negotiations with the Palestinians and with Syria made Indyk a controversial figure in the eyes of Israeli leaders. Former prime minister Ehud Barak was so appreciative of Indyk’s work on the peace process that in an unusual move he asked Clinton to appoint Indyk to ambassador in Israel once again. But Netanyahu, when first elected prime minister, in 1996, sent word to Washington that he’d like to see Indyk replaced because he was regarded as too close to leaders of the Labor Party.
Colleagues and counterparts in the peace process believe it is Indyk’s style more than his ideology that provoked strong feelings among Israelis. “He’s not a peacenik, and he’s also not a Likudnik,” said an Israeli official who worked closely with Indyk in the past two decades. “He is a mainstream two-state solution guy.”
Robert Danin, a former colleague at the State Department’s Middle East team, said Indyk brings “an Australian bluntness” to his work. This quality, Danin believes, will allow the new negotiator to “cause some discomfort for both sides, which is something they need at times.”
Gilad Sher, who served as chief negotiator in Barak’s government, noted that Indyk’s greatest advantage entering his new role is that “his learning curve is flat.” Indyk, Sher said, worked on peace process issues continuously for two decades and will waste no time getting to know the parties and the issues.