Washington — Entering the downtown Washington ballroom that hosted Israel’s Independence Day celebration on May 12, U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk seemed at home, trading handshakes and smiles with Israeli officials just like every year. But Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz delivered a pointed message during his small talk with the American that night.
“I told him,” Steinitz recounted, “that he needs to make clear Israel is not at fault for the collapse of the peace talks.”
There was a reason Steinitz pressed Indyk on this point. In a rare public speech just four days earlier, Indyk singled out Israel’s settlement activity in the occupied West Bank as the key reason for the failure of the U.S. peace effort. The speech followed hard on the heels of a much-noticed article in Yediot Ahranot, one of Israel’s major daily newspapers, in which an unnamed U.S. official widely believed to be Indyk made essentially the same point.
Yet from the American point of view, Indyk, a 62-year-old, Jewish, British-born, Australian-raised naturalized American citizen, could hardly be seen as anti-Israel. In fact, his involvement in Washington with Israel-related issues began with the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. From there, it went through various permutations during long years of work in this area — from think tank scholar to presidential advisor, to two stints as U.S. ambassador to Israel and, finally, America’s chief peace mediator.
Still, Indyk’s winding path through these positions has featured two abiding, and at times competing, characteristics: his support for Israel, and his disdain for Israel’s West Bank settlement activity.
“I don’t see here an evolution,” said Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace negotiator who was most recently President Obama’s special adviser for the region. “He’s someone who has always been very committed to seeing a peace agreement achieved, and for a while now he has viewed those in the settler camp as not committed to a two-state outcome.”
The administration maintains that Indyk’s views — which have irked both Israel and the Palestinians at various times — are a result of his personality, not of political calculation or bias. “Ambassador Indyk calls it as he sees it,” said an administration official speaking to the Forward on condition of anonymity. “It’s the Australian in him, perhaps. He’s more frank than most diplomats, but he is speaking out because he cares about Israel’s future.”