A recent post on the Facebook page of Im Tirtzu, an Israeli right-wing group, depicts Washington’s new special envoy for the Middle East peace process as a sock puppet operated by the progressive group the New Israel Fund.
“We ask the U.S. government to appoint an ‘honest broker.’ Mr. Martin Indyk, the chairman of the New Israel Fund’s International Council, is not perceived as such by the Israeli public,” the group’s chairman, Ronen Shoval, wrote in a open letter to the American ambassador in Israel.
On the other end of the political spectrum, left-wing commentator M.J. Rosenberg criticized Indyk for his previous affiliation with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the huge Israel lobby juggernaut. Indyk’s work for that lobby in the 1980s, Rosenberg argued, was yet further proof of “the simple fact that the United States has unambiguously taken Israel’s side for decades.”
Political wisdom has it that being attacked from both ends indicates that one’s positions are safely in the center. But for Martin Indyk, it is also yet another sign of his conflicted image in the world of Middle East peacemaking: too pro-Israeli in the eyes of Israel’s critics, and at the same time too tough on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for many Israelis.
Juggling personal and family connections with Israel has long been a challenge for Jewish negotiators and envoys dealing with Israel and the Middle East, as they came under attack not only from critics of Israel, but also from Israelis themselves. Indyk, when serving as ambassador to Israel, was called “Jew boy” by the late Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi. Other Jewish administration officials and diplomats have also suffered insults and accusations by Israeli officials who saw their criticism of Israeli policies as incompatible with their Jewish faith.
Indyk, who at the time warned Ze’evi that the last person who hurled anti-Semitic slurs at him in school received a punch in his face, views his ties to Israel as formative to his professional life. In his acceptance speech after being appointed special envoy July 29, Indyk spoke of his experience as a post-graduate student in Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when a surprise military attack by Egypt and Syria against Israel made strong initial advances.
“In those dark days,” he said as he turned to Secretary of State John Kerry, who was standing next to him, “I witnessed firsthand how one of your predecessors, Henry Kissinger, brokered a cease-fire that ended the war and paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt.”
Indyk spent part of the 1973 war volunteering in a kibbutz in Israel’s southern region. In his 2009 book, “Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East,” Indyk called his days in Israel during that war “a defining moment in my life.”
At the time, Indyk said in a 2011 interview, he even considered immigrating to Israel.
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.
Indyk’s career in the world of Middle East policy has been compared at times with that of Dennis Ross, the former longtime top peace process negotiator who, like many others who have served on the American negotiating team, is also Jewish. Both Ross and Indyk have experienced firsthand the ups and downs of the peace process, and both have strong ties to Israel. When President Obama put together his national security team, he brought on board Ross, who had advised him during the campaign. Indyk, who was close to Hillary Rodham Clinton, remained in the think tank world, heading Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, named after its main funder, Haim Saban, an Israeli American billionaire who has been a key contributor to the political careers of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Now it is Indyk’s turn to take the front seat in the administration’s efforts to advance the peace process. Former Israeli and American officials agree that Indyk could be more willing to apply pressure on Israel than Ross is. But a former American official stressed that Indyk “doesn’t pull his punches” from either side and “will be there to challenge both leaders.”
In a 2009 interview with a European Jewish website, Indyk tied his decision to take on a diplomatic career focusing on Israel to “that basic insecurity that is in the dark part of our hearts, that is a product of our history of thousands of years.” He noted that his wish, ever since his days in Jerusalem during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, was to “play some role in trying to make Israel safe because it would make me safe.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.