WASHINGTON — Hours after Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed the departure of the US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Martin Indyk, State Department officials stressed Friday afternoon that the US peace negotiations team is still intact and at work engaging both sides.
State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed that while “there are no plans to find a permanent replacement” for Indyk, who will return to his previous position at a Washington-based think tank, the members of his team are still holding talks with Israeli and Palestinian representatives and plan to continue to do so.
Harf offered no explanation as to the timing of Indyk’s departure, some two months after talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority ground to a halt amid mutual allegations of misconduct and the announcement of a PA unity government with Hamas.
“It was a decision that he and the secretary decided together,” Harf said.
Harf denied that Indyk’s departure signaled the death knell for Kerry’s attempt at resolving the decades-old conflict, asserting instead that the US remains “deeply engaged with all of the parties to see if they can get back to the table.”
“Our efforts behind the scenes with both parties to get them back to the table are ongoing and we are still in discussions and negotiations to see how we can do that,” Harf added, confirming that other key members of the team – among them David Makovsky, former director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East, and Phil Gordon, Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region – are still actively working on the initiative.
Under Indyk, Harf said, the team had made strides forward in “defining the gaps between the two parties on all the core issues in a fairly detailed way.” As a result, she said, the US had “developed bridging ideas” with both parties “to try to reduce the distance on the gaps.”
Indyk, who will resume his previous role of vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, will be replaced for the near future by Deputy Special Envoy Frank Lowenstein, who will now serve as the Acting Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.
Harf said that the interim nature implied by Lowenstein’s title would not harm his ability to serve as a respected broker. “People know that when he speaks on this issue, he has the full confidence and backing of the secretary,” Harf countered. Lowenstein served as senior advisor to Kerry during the lead-up to the announcement of renewed talks in late July 2013.
Earlier Friday, Kerry complimented Indyk for investing “decades of his extraordinary career to the mission of helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve a lasting peace. It’s the cause of Martin’s career, and I’m grateful for the wisdom and insight he’s brought to our collective efforts.”
Indyk drew fire in May after the breakdown of talks for his assessment that settlement construction was a major factor in the failure of negotiations to reach a peace deal in nine months.
In a speech at the Washington Institute shortly after talks broke down this spring, Indyk criticized both sides for the failed peace talks.
That same month, a Yedioth Ahronoth feature, reportedly based on a briefing by Indyk, quoted unnamed US officials offering a withering assessment of Israe;li Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the negotiations, indicated that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had completely given up on the prospect of a negotiated solution, and warned Israel that the Palestinians will achieve statehood come what may — either via international organizations or through violence.
The officials highlighted Netanyahu’s ongoing settlement construction as the issue “largely to blame” for the failure of Kerry’s July 2013-April 2014 effort to broker a permanent peace accord.