WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama’s latest National Security Council appointment, Robert Malley, is a man about whom few in Middle East policy circles in Washington can remain dispassionate. The news of his appointment, confirmed Tuesday afternoon, was heralded by the left wing as a sign of Obama’s wise investment in the precarious Persian Gulf, and by the right as a sign that the president had thrown Israel under the bus.
The conservative Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin minced few words in his characterization of Malley as “one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror” and “a virulent critic of Israel and an advocate for recognition and acceptance of the Hamas terrorists who rule Gaza as well as engagement with Iran and other rejectionist states.” Tobin suggested in his column that Malley’s appointment as Obama’s top adviser and go-between to mend fences with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States will further undermine US-Saudi trust rather than strengthen it.
But across the political divide, Ziad Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, responded to news of the appointment with enthusiasm, describing Malley as “uniquely qualified for the job with his grasp of the game and close knowledge of the players.”
Asali added that Malley’s “willingness to explore ideas and options exposed him to criticism but deepened his understanding,” surmising that with delicate and critical relationships in the balance, it was “a good moment to have him on board.”
Describing Malley as “exposed to criticism” is perhaps an understatement. In 2008, Malley was serving as an informal adviser to then-senator Obama when it was revealed that he had met with Hamas representatives through his work with the International Crisis Group. Malley countered that the meetings had never been a secret, and that he did not work for the Obama campaign in any official capacity. Nevertheless, as he explained in a letter to The New York Times, “I ultimately thought it best to resign from a post I never enjoyed after a newspaper revealed actions I had already long publicized” because reports of his meetings were “becoming a distraction to me and to Senator Obama’s campaign, and to avoid any misperception — misrepresentation being the more accurate word — about the candidate’s position regarding the Islamist movement.”
This was neither the first – nor the last – run-in that Malley had with pro-Israel critics who cast him as a terrorist sympathizer.
Malley is the son of an Egyptian-Jewish journalist who was at the forefront of the anti-colonialist literary movements of the mid-twentieth century. A Rhodes scholar with an intimate knowledge of the Middle East, Malley was scooped up by the Clinton administration where he served in a number of roles, culminating in a two-and-a-half-year-long stint as special assistant to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs, a post he held until the end of the administration in 2001. In that last position, he had a front-row seat in the drama as Clinton tried to stave off impending crisis with a last-ditch meeting between PA president Yasser Arafat and then-prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David.
A year later, Malley published his interpretation of what went wrong. In a piece in the New York Review of Books that he co-wrote with Hussien Agha, Malley shifted blame away from Arafat, whom many participants charged with the talks’ failure, toward Barak. Criticism of the piece. published in the midst of the Second Intifada, was so ringing that his former colleagues at the Clinton White House – former national security adviser Samuel (Sandy) Berger, ambassadors Martin Indyk and Daniel C. Kurtzer, and ambassador Dennis Ross, former special envoy of the president to the Middle East — all were among the co-signers of a letter in Malley’s defense.
The letter asserted that the allegations voiced by Malley’s detractors “that he harbors an anti-Israeli agenda and has sought to undermine Israel’s security” were “unfair, inappropriate, and wrong.”
Although, according to reports in The New York Times, the White House says that Malley has made close contacts with members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Malley has not pulled punches in his analyses.
In a March 2012 article in Foreign Policy Magazine, Malley wrote that “Israelis, not for the first time, likely are exaggerating the Iranian threat and its imminence,” and suggested that it was in Netanyahu’s interest to keep the world focused on Iran in order to take pressure off of Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
“Virtually the entire international security conversation has become monopolized by Iran, turning Netanyahu’s 15-year obsession into a global one,” Malley wrote. “That is an added benefit for the prime minister: for as long as that remains the case, there will be little space left for that other irksome Middle Eastern conflict — the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — and even less American appetite to pressure Israel on it.”
When rumors first floated over the summer that Malley might come in from the cold to fill some capacity on the administration’s foreign policy team, right-wing Jewish groups protested. The Zionist Organization of America’s National President Mort Klein said that he was “deeply concerned that someone hostile to Israel and pro-Hamas and pro-Iran as Robert Malley may be appointed to high office in the Obama Middle East team.”
Malley, who has published one book and numerous articles, has remained active in conflict-management and Middle East policy circles. He is a member of the advisory board of J Street, and has been since its earliest years.
This position, however, may prove to be Malley’s biggest challenge. And with Saudi Arabia alienated from the United States and skittish regarding Iran’s nuclear program, he will once again have White House-level seats at a Mideast drama with high stakes.