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Top Obama Mideast Envoy Steps Down As Peace Talks Crumble

Top Obama Mideast Envoy Steps Down As Peace Talks Crumble

Top U.S. Mideast envoy Martin Indyk resigned Friday amid the apparent collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the clearest signal yet that the administration may soon be throwing in the towel on what has been one of its top foreign-policy initiatives.

Indyk, a veteran diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, will be returning to the Brookings Institution after less than a year in the job. His predecessor, former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, had also resigned after failing to jump-start the moribund talks. Indyk will be replaced by Frank Lowenstein, the envoy’s current deputy, but State Department officials declined to comment on whether the team Indyk assembled would continue its work or be disbanded. People familiar with the matter say that several of its top members, including diplomatic expert David Makovsky, will also be leaving this summer.    

Indyk’s resignation is a blow to the Obama administration, which has invested enormous amounts of time and political capital in the peace process. When Indyk assumed the post last July, Kerry said the career diplomat would be charged with rejuvenating the faltering peace process with the goal of reaching a comprehensive deal within nine months. That ambitious timetable came and went with no sign that either side was ready to even consider the types of far-reaching concessions that would be necessary in any agreement. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to form a unity government with the militant group Hamas in early June, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to order a violent sweep through the West Bank in search of three kidnapped Israeli teens just weeks later, appear to have been the final nails in the coffin.

In a statement Friday, Kerry said that the United States remained "committed not just to the cause of peace, but to resuming the process when the parties find a path back to serious negotiations." Notably, Kerry didn’t highlight any concrete accomplishments by Indyk, who has spent decades working Mideast peace issues and is highly regarded throughout Washington and in many Middle Eastern capitals.

Indyk’s departure has been rumored for months, but the veteran diplomat had long dismissed the talk. "I have not resigned my position as Special Envoy and I remain focused on the reassessment process that the Secretary of State is undertaking," Indyk said in an email to Foreign Policy last month.

In an email Friday, Indyk declined to comment on whether any specific incidents caused him to change his mind, referring all questions to the State Department. Still, the recent news from the Mideast has been unrelentingly grim. 

Netanyahu’s decision to basically suspend talks with the Abbas government after its unity deal with Hamas, as well as the ongoing Israeli crackdown through the West Bank that has already resulted in hundreds of arrests and at least five deaths, has clearly stopped any hope of near-term progress on a peace agreement. Late Thursday, Israel released the names of what it claimed were the two men behind the kidnappings of three Israeli teenagers. Israeli authorities accused them of being affiliated with Hamas, but didn’t provide direct proof for either assertion.

The Obama administration’s decision to devote so much time to the Mideast peace process — which presidents of both parties have pursued, fruitlessly, for decades — has sparked anger and confusion on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the White House was wasting time on an impossible issue while Egypt was suffering through a succession of political crises, the brutal Syrian civil war was roaring along, and militants were steadily conquering larger portions of Iraq. The administration has insisted that an Israeli-Palestinian deal would spur other positive change throughout the region and prevent a larger future conflict between the two sides.

In April, the roiling tensions between the administration and its critics burst into the open during a bitter exchange between Kerry and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who had served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and each been their party’s nominee for president.

"The Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though you may drag them out for a while, are finished," McCain said.

Kerry hit back: "It’s interesting that you declare it dead, but the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t declare it dead."

"We’ll see," McCain interrupted.

"Well, yeah, we will see," Kerry shot back.

"It has stopped. It has stopped. Recognize reality," McCain retorted. 

With the head of the Kerry peace effort resigning Friday, the administration may have to accept that dispiriting reality far sooner than it had hoped.