Sep 29 2000

Indyk should not come back

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,US-Middle East

Diplomacy is a tricky business. Governments and foreign service departments try very hard to keep their diplomats moving from one post to the other so that they don’t get too attached to one country. The idea being that if a diplomat gets too attached to a single country his or her political vision might get blurred, and that diplomat will start to represent the country he/she is working in rather than his/her own.

It was for this reason of objectivity that for many years the US and other Western countries refused to appoint Jewish diplomats to Israel. For years this rule also applied to major media organs like the New York Times. This rule that was based only on the religious faith of diplomats (and journalists) was wrong. But although people should be judged solely on their performance, governments can’t and shouldn’t ignore the `impression’ factor. Impressions and images often precede individuals and many times never leave them.

The case of two-time US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, is a case in point. 

A naturalised Australian, Indyk’s US citizenship had to be brought forward in 1993 so that President Clinton could appoint him ambassador to Israel. At the time Indyk was the director of the pro-Israel Middle East Institute. While Indyk’s appointment was a political one (presidents in the US are allowed a certain number of such appointments) it nevertheless left a bad impression in the Middle East.

To be fair, Indyk’s policy and positions have changed from his days at the Middle East Institute. Palestinian negotiators have said that after being so personally and deeply involved in the issues he has come to better understand the Palestinian position. In fact, one unnamed Palestinian source was quoted as saying that Indyk has become instrumental in trying to convince the Israelis of some of the Palestinian sensitivities. It seems that precisely because Indyk’s background was so pro-Israeli he made some contribution to the peace process.

The comments of this unnamed Palestinian source notwithstanding, the impression of most Palestinians and Arabs should not be belittled. Whether fair or not, so much has been said in the Arab press about the inability of the US administration to be an honest broker because of the many key staffers who hail from the Jewish faith. The religious background of some of the key decision makers in the White House and State Department has been continuously raised in political saloons and among average people. An article written a few years ago by Avinom Bar Yousef in the Israeli daily Maariv (anyone else writing such an article would have been termed anti-Semitic) detailed the number of Jews working in the Clinton Administration.

In that article Bar Yousef relates an incident when a White House official, after he found out Bar Yousef was Israeli, spoke to Bar Yousef in Hebrew with an Israeli accent and using idioms so flawlessly that the Israeli journalists couldn’t believe he was talking to a White House official in Washington DC rather than someone from Tel Aviv.

This particular article was translated to Arabic and reproduced in most Arabic newspapers adding fuel to the fire that exists in most Arab circles regarding their impression of the pro-Israeli nature of many in the Clinton Administration. To most Arabs the line between Jewish and Israeli is so blurred that it is difficult to convince people that an American Jew can be fair and objective when it comes to the Middle East. The case of Jonathan Pollard, again a Jewish American who was convicted of passing classified US materials to Israel, has hardly helped change this impression.

If the US government is serious about its role as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict, and if it is interested at all in the opinions of the Arab peoples it has no choice today but to keep Indyk away from this area. For the average Arab it is hard to believe that a Jewish American can be objective about the Middle East conflict. It is harder yet to convince people that a former head of a pro-Israel American organisation can be an honest broker. And if this person is now publicly accused of compromising US security regulations, it is impossible to convince the many conspiratorial thinkers that he is as clean as snow.

US diplomats must represent their government and the American interests wherever they are posted. Any hint that they may have allegiance elsewhere should be reason enough not to have that particular diplomat stationed in that country.

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