- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
This story has been updated.
ASPEN, Colo. — The former top U.S. envoy to the Middle East said that trust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders has completely dissolved, leaving him exceptionally pessimistic about the prospects of restoring negotiations over a lasting peace settlement between their two peoples.
"There is a deep loathing of each leader for the other that has built up over the years," Martin Indyk told an audience of several hundred people at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado in response to questions from the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg. Indyk, in his first public remarks since stepping down as the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on June 27, said the distance between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems unbridgeable. "There is no trust between them. Neither believes that the other is serious," Indyk said.
The former envoy was unsparing in his criticism of both men, but he strongly defended the Obama administration’s efforts to forge a settlement and a path toward a Palestinian state that would exist peacefully with Israel. Indyk praised the personal efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been criticized on Capitol Hill and in foreign-policy circles for spending too much time on brokering a deal that never showed much chance of hope, while a civil war raged in Syria and jihadists conquered portions of Iraq. That criticism has flared anew after the final fumes of the U.S.-led peace process dissipated recently amid an ongoing — and bloody — Israeli offensive into the West Bank and Gaza following the murder of three Israeli teenagers.
"It’s not as if John Kerry was ignoring these other issues," Indyk said. "He is indefatigable. It’s not as if he can’t do more than one thing."
Indyk said Kerry came into office with the peace process as a personal priority and had the backing of President Barack Obama. But in the end, he said, the United States found itself negotiating with two leaders who, while committed to a two-state solution, could not sell a deal to their people.
"We gave it everything we had, and we got nowhere," Indyk said, laying the blame "50-50" between Netanyahu and Abbas. Negotiations officially ended in April when Abbas opted to press for statehood through the United Nations rather than continue, a move that Israel had long said would be a deal-breaker.
In recounting a nearly yearlong series of negotiations, Indyk said that both sides identified the agreement gaps early on and that Netanyahu eventually moved into "the zone of a possible agreement" on such thorny issues as the status of territories, Jerusalem, and mutual recognition of Israel’s and Palestine’s rights to exist.
But during Abbas’s visit to Washington in March, he effectively "checked out" from the talks and stopped responding to proposals from the Obama administration on how to close a deal, Indyk said. After that, the process spiraled downward and intensified during negotiations over the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Abbas said he decided to seek statehood at the U.N. after Israel refused to release a fourth group of prisoners. But Indyk said that Abbas was also frustrated by Israel’s announced plans to construct new settlements, which had coincided with the release of each group of prisoners. An impression took hold among Palestinians that Abbas was paying for the prisoners’ freedom by ceding away more territory to Israel, Indyk said, an impression that Netanyahu’s government did nothing to counter.
"[Abbas] became humiliated in the eyes of his people," Indyk said. Abbas then concluded he could withdraw from the talks or be overthrown.
"President [Obama] himself still considers it a priority," Indyk said. "He would still like to see a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on his watch. At the moment, he’s declared a pause, but he’s not walking away. He’s ready to come back. He’s even said he’s ready to bring me back to rework it."
That seems highly unlikely following the Israeli teen murders by suspected Hamas militants, which were followed by an apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager, whose burned body was found on Wednesday in a Jerusalem forest.
"Essentially what you’ve got now is a more rapidly deteriorating situation in which all of the worst fears and assumptions about the other side are being confirmed," Indyk said. And that mistrust is especially pronounced among younger Palestinians, who’ve "grown up under Israeli occupation. [They] simply don’t believe that the Israelis will ever grant them their rights."
Reflecting on decades invested in trying to forge a lasting peace, Indyk recalled the historic September 1993 handshake between Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, and Yasir Arafat, then P.L.O. chairman, on the South Lawn of the White House, sealing the first agreement to end the long conflict. Indyk witnessed this "with tears of hope" in his eyes. "But it’s 20 years since then, and so many people have died and so many hopes have been dashed on both sides that there is a deep, deep skepticism in the heart of the people, Israelis and Palestinians," Indyk said. "People on both sides do not believe that [peace] is possible."