Negotiating lessons, in Martin Indyk’s own words

The new US peace coordinator penned a book in 2009, ‘Innocent Abroad,’ full of hard-learned ideas on peacemaking. As talks resume, all parties might do well to read his insights

Secretary of State John Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk.  (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Secretary of State John Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

Martin Indyk, the former two-time US ambassador to Israel named Monday as US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, in 2009 published a fascinating account of his personal experiences as a US diplomat at the heart of the Middle East peace process, entitled “Innocent Abroad.”

Throughout his book, he provides glimpses into his own personal beliefs, and he concluded with prescriptions for future negotiators and American diplomats. The various parties might want to read and internalize some of Indyk’s own words, as the negotiations get going again:

For the Israelis

1. While Secretary Kerry has worked hard to keep the process surrounding these secret talks indeed secret, Indyk will likely be a little more flexible and will certainly understand the role of the media. As he, oh-so-correctly, writes in “Innocent Abroad”: “Leaks are the lifeblood of the Israeli political system… nothing of political value stays secret for long in Israel.”

2. Indyk watches the ups and downs of internal Israeli politics closely, noting in the book that he follows “Kissinger’s maxim: Israel doesn’t have a foreign policy, only domestic politics.” The fact that Indyk pays such attention to the daily news cycle in Israel will allow Prime Minister Netanyahu to leverage domestic politics greatly to his favor at the negotiating table. Indeed, the recent discussion over the release of Arab-Israeli and Palestinian prisoners might represent an immediate example of Netanyahu’s understanding of this.

3. Love him or hate him, in many ways Indyk might have more chance of success because he understands Israelis and is not afraid to say so clearly. He writes that “most Israelis view the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza as mistakes because violent attacks continued” and that “Israelis will support far-reaching concessions provided they know that there will be no further claims on Israel.”

For the Americans

1. Indyk clearly believes in the strength of dual-track negotiations — especially as it applied to Israeli negotiations with the Syrians and Palestinians under the Clinton Administration — and the ability to leverage one or the other with the many parties involved. He may well apply this strategy to the complicated web of converging and diverging interests in the region, to leverage different sides where possible. As he advises in the book, “Future presidents would do well to focus on the interconnected nature of regional politics from the outset.”

Indyk believes the personal involvement of the US president ‘needs to be reserved for those critical moments when the deal has to be closed or Middle Eastern leaders must take risky decisions.’ So if we see Obama’s personal involvement in this renewed process, we can assume things are serious

Further, he writes: “Encouraging multiple Arab-Israeli negotiations is preferable to concentrating on only one because that gives the US the ability to take advantage of the rivalries and differing interests of Arab players to overcome the obstacles to progress.” Certainly the Americans will connect Syrian and Iranian policy vis-à-vis the Israelis during the negotiations and might even begin seeking other Middle Eastern countries which can offer movement on a separate diplomatic process, perhaps one of the GCC countries, where a May 2013 Israeli Ministry of Finance report cited the opening of a secret Israeli diplomatic mission.

2. Indyk does not believe the president of the United States should be very hands-on — and maybe that’s exactly why President Obama approved his appointment. Indyk writes that in president Clinton’s last year in office, Clinton “became too involved in the details and reduced his leverage as a result.” He believes the personal involvement of the US president “needs to be reserved for those critical moments when the deal has to be closed or Middle Eastern leaders must take risky decisions.” So if we see Obama’s personal involvement in this renewed process, we can assume things are serious.

3. Indyk is doubtless expecting the full support of the White House — and nothing less. Should the White House try to circumvent his efforts, watch for his expedited departure. He writes: “The details should be left to the president’s assistants, who must be empowered to speak for him. Unfortunately, Middle Eastern leaders have grown accustomed to direct presidential engagement, and White House aides are attracted to the idea of back channels that bypass the president’s diplomats.”

For the Palestinians

1. Indyk will be watching closely for indications of the Palestinian sense of urgency at these talks. As he writes: “Only when an Arab leader concludes that time is not on his side, that the risks of clinging to the status quo are more dangerous than the consequences of change, is he likely to move.” If he genuinely believes that there is that sense of urgency, he’s all in: “When the rare moment arises that an Arab leader indicates a willingness to make peace, and reveals a sense of urgency, it is essential to capitalize on it immediately and pursue the opportunity relentlessly until the breakthrough is achieved and the deal is closed.” Referring to Arab leaders, he writes that when “they decide to make peace… it is because they believe their own survival is on the line, not because the US President demands it.” To keep Indyk interested, Palestinians must show their sense of urgency… or convincingly fake it.

2. Mahmoud Abbas will be tested on his ability to serve as the leader of all Palestinians. Indyk knows that the prime minister of the state of Israel can sign an agreement on behalf of all Israelis — even those who may disagree with him. He also knows that Palestinians must be equally unified under one leader to sign an agreement. He writes that the “goal should be a unified Palestinian partner for negotiations with Israel that is capable of fulfilling its commitments in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Indyk is likely to be creative in seeking to achieve this Palestinian unity, possibly using other Arab leaders and the Arab League as leverage to help, and to circumvent Hamas. He writes: “Arab leaders can provide political cover for weak Palestinian counterparts who will otherwise face difficulties defending political compromises with Israel. This is the opposite function to the interested-bystander role they all adopted in the 1990s when they put the onus on Arafat to make the compromises with Israel and live up to them.”

For Martin Indyk

1. The security situation in Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians is stable and calm, but we all know that can change. Hamas, historically, has used violence to remind the world — and negotiators — that it is still around. Indyk would be wise to remember his critique of president Clinton’s view of violence: “Clinton wrongly assumed that achieving the deal would end the violence rather than understanding that only by ending the violence would there be any chance of closing the deal.”

2. Indyk shouldn’t let his efforts drag on into 2016. As he bluntly states in the book, “an attempt to reach a Middle Eastern agreement in the last year of the president’s second term is probably the worst timing of all.”

For All Parties

1. Indyk is going to tell some hard truths. He writes (and this was back in 2009, remember) that “most Palestinian refugees by now understand that they are not going to be returning to their forefathers’ homes in Israel.”

He also references settlement freezes agreed to by prime minister Begin at Camp David I and by prime minister Sharon to president George W. Bush in April 2001. If Begin and Sharon can do it, he will likely argue, so can Netanyahu.

2. He understands the challenges moving forward, citing in 2009 the “resistance of Arab leaders to change, fractiousness of Israeli politics, Palestinian dysfunctionalism and the vulnerability of any political process to endemic violence and terrorism.”

If Indyk’s next volume on Middle East Peace Diplomacy is to be the story of how he steered Israelis and Palestinians to peace, all these challenges will have to be overcome.


Stephan Miller, cited by Campaigns and Elections magazine in 2008 as “James Carville’s young protege,” is an American-Israeli public opinion research analyst and communications strategist, and a former foreign affairs adviser to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

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