No Middle East watchers will be surprised that Martin Indyk has ended his brief tenure as President Barack Obama’s Middle East Special Envoy. Sen. George Mitchell, appointed to the same job by Obama on his first full day in the Oval Office in 2009, did the same two years later. The job of envoy to a peace process locked in long-term paralysis is something of a fool’s errand.
Indyk’s departure is no setback for the peace process; on the contrary, like Mitchell’s before him, it’s a symptom of the failure of that process. Indyk, a veteran of the Clinton Administration’s peace efforts, was appointed to oversee the latest round of talks that began last summer, but which most analysts warned had very little chance of making any progress — for the simple reason that the balance (or rather, the vast imbalance) of leverage between the two sides remained unchanged.
For Israel, there was no immediate downside to the continuation of the occupation status quo in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Israeli domestic political median had shifted far to the right of where it had been when Indyk had served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador in Tel Aviv. For the Palestinians, two decades of a peace process that had seen Israel expand and deepen its grip on the West Bank and East Jerusalem had undermined the political standing of PLO Chairman and PA President Mahmoud Abbas; it had become more politically perilous than ever for the Palestinian leadership to accept anything less than the international consensus for a two-state solution, i.e. Palestinian statehood on the basis of the 1967 lines — more than what Israel was willing to offer.
Moreover, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had learned from his own experience that bipartisan political pressure in Washington would restrain the Obama Administration from leaning on Israel to observe the international consensus on the terms for a solution, and to halt continued construction of settlements deemed illegal by the U.N. Security Council. Netanyahu had successfully resisted Obama’s demand that Israel freeze settlement construction, forcing the Administration into a humiliating retreat that further undermined Palestinian confidence in the peace process.
Israel came to the table last summer comfortable with the status quo and under no pressure to make concessions. The Palestinian leadership went reluctantly, expecting failure but with Abbas remaining skittish about exploring any alternative to the U.S.-led diplomacy to which he had dedicated his political career. His moves to take matters to the U.N. typically played as threats periodically rolled out to pressure Israel, rather than as a substantial campaign that would take the conflict into uncharted waters.
After the current process finally ground to a halt in April, Indyk was critical of leaders on both sides. But he outraged many Israelis by putting Israel’s settlement policy front and center of reasons for the failure to achieve progress, in a speech on the issue last May.
Having taken the job despite the frustrations that torpedoed Mitchell’s efforts, his own decision to resign is another reminder that there’s simply no deal to be had right now. That may pose more of a problem to the Israelis than it does for the Palestinians.
The existence of a “process” that would end the occupation through bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement overseen by the U.S. has been useful for Western and Arab governments because it has absolved them of any need to intervene themselves to press for change in a situation deemed unacceptable by international consensus. The working assumption over the past two decades has been that the U.S. is handling the issue, bringing the two sides toward a political solution that satisfies international concerns to end the occupation. Any action by any outside party has been condemned as unproductive and potentially disruptive to the U.S.-led peace process. But that entire edifice becomes difficult to sustain if it becomes incontrovertibly obvious that the U.S.-led peace process has failed to end the occupation.
But Mitchell, and now Indyk, have effectively produced an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment — except, in their case, it was not the little boy pointing out the emperor’s nakedness, as much as it was a case of the imperial tailor quitting.
If there’s no peace process, of course, then the question of what to do about the occupation and the rights of millions of Palestinians becomes, once again, a matter for the international community to deal with. That was the gist of Kerry’s warning to Israel in April that failure to end the occupation would cast Israel as an apartheid state. He was trying to warn the Israelis that if there were no peace-process route to ending the occupation, foreign pressure would mount in the form of actions by governments and civil society to pressure Israel in the way that South Africa came under pressure to end minority rule in the 1980s. And that’s exactly what’s begun to transpire, most recently in the form of the vote by U.S. Presbyterians to divest in companies deemed to be supplying goods and services used in the occupation and this week’s warnings to citizens by a number of European governments to refrain from investing in companies based in occupied territories.
Après moi, le déluge, and all that.