- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009


By Martin Indyk

Simon & Schuster, $28, 480 pages


Martin Indyk, a long-time academic expert on the Middle East, former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and ambassador to Israel in the 1990s (in two separate tours of duty), has spent his entire adult life studying and dealing with the problems of the Middle East. Born in England, schooled in Australia and now an American citizen, his book, “Innocent Abroad,” is a history of the Clinton Administration’s diplomatic efforts in that area. Because of his National Security Council and State Department postings, no one is better equipped to write that account.

After the rout and eviction of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991, American prestige in the Middle East was high and concurrently, Palestinians, because of their sympathy with Saddam Hussein, were looked upon with distaste. Consequently, the Arab countries were able to take a more balanced view of the Arab-Israeli conflict and with American encouragement contemplate an actual peace with Israel. Even the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, who had joined the coalition against Iraq because of his long-standing hatred of Saddam, found that working with the Americans had its uses and was actively considering a final peace treaty with Israel to be achieved with the assistance of the United States. In the late 1990s, our State Department was delighted because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak signified he was willing to cede territory the Syrians claimed was necessary for an agreement.

An Israeli-Syrian treaty would make all subsequent efforts easier and convince the Palestinians to work harder since they could see their Arab support eroding. But although a treaty seemed finally in reach, for some reason it slipped away. One possible explanation is that Assad, knowing his life was ending, decided to concentrate on securing a stable succession to the presidency for his son, Bashir. Whatever the reason, a golden moment was lost. Mr. Indyk feels that if America had pushed harder at the opportune time, we might have succeeded.

There were, however, other areas where success seemed possible, according to Mr. Indyk’s account. King Hussein of Jordan had been lied to by both Syria and Egypt, ignored by most Arab countries, and had even seen his country invaded by a Syrian tank column coming to the aid of Palestinian insurgents. The tanks were turned back by the Jordanian air force, but the fact that the Israeli air force had been alerted and was ready to intervene on his behalf if called upon was a welcome contrast to his Arab neighbors.

By the early 1990s, King Hussein felt that the time had come for a peace treaty with Israel and forged ahead, sometimes ignoring the advice American Middle East experts were giving him. In regard to this, the author writes, “as I hung up the phone (after talking to Israeli Prime Minister Rabin) it finally dawned on me that Jordan and Israel … when they decided to make the deal were quite capable of reaching an agreement without the help of the United States.” This basic truth is too often ignored in our haste to solve problems. As the author says, the United States cannot impose agreements, but it can facilitate them, and this is what the author and his colleagues tried to do. It should be noted that the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty is still operative and functions to everyone’s satisfaction.

As could be expected, it was the Palestinians who presented the most complicated and difficult problems. Everyone (except extremists such as Hamas, the governing body in Gaza) seems to think a two-state solution is the answer. But sovereignty over Jerusalem, its borders and the right of return for the descendents of refugees, seemed to become insolvable problems during the prolonged discussions. Every time the United States prevailed upon Israel to make a concession Yasser Arafat expanded his demands. President Clinton, who had hoped to end his days in the White House with a diplomatic triumph, similar to that of Jimmy Carter’s Israel-Egypt agreement, saw his effort drown under a torrent of nit-picking and ended up calling Arafat a liar and a cheat. He warned the incoming secretary of state, Colin Powell, about dealing with him.

How great a liar Arafat was seems now rather irrelevant. He clearly was not the man who could or even wanted to lead the Palestinians into an agreement with Israel that would give them at last their own state. Possibly the original American mistake was in rescuing him from the Israelis when they besieged him in Beirut in the early 1980s, and then, thinking him pliable, recognizing his Palestinian leadership.

Martin Indyk sometimes repeats himself, which if you’re trying to pound home a few points is understandable. With a wealth of detail, he shows us where and how we failed and when we succeeded, experience necessary for future success. For practitioners of Middle East diplomacy, this book is essential, particularly since Mr. Indyk seems destined for a role in the new administration.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer who writes on international affairs.

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