On the wall of his Brookings Institution office, Martin Indyk displays a series of photographs from 1995, arguably the zenith of hope for peace in the Middle East. As the U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time, Indyk appears in the photos with a smiling Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat. President Clinton, determined to make a peace agreement his foreign-policy legacy, stands proudly nearby. Today, Rabin and Arafat are dead, and peace in the Middle East remains as elusive as ever.
Indyk, now the director of Brookings’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, which seeks to promote dialogue between American officials and opinion leaders and their counterparts in Israel and the Arab world, recently traveled to Jerusalem for ceremonies commemorating the 10th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. Back home, Indyk spoke with National Journal Correspondent James Kitfield about the difference a decade has made in the Middle East peace process.
NJ: You’ve just returned from Israel, where many world leaders gathered for the 10th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Compare the state of the Middle East peace process today with those hopeful days of the Oslo accords in the mid-1990s.
Indyk: Well, I remember September 1995 as the absolute high point in the peace process, because both Rabin and Arafat had come to Washington to sign the second Oslo agreement, which ceded control of the major cities in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. There was a reception one night where both men gave impromptu speeches. Instead of his usual rhetoric, Arafat spoke about peace that night, in a very good speech. Afterwards, Rabin got up and said, “Mr. Chairman, there are very few sports at which we Jews excel, but in speechmaking we are Olympians. And it seems to me, in listening to your speech, that you are a little Jewish.” That exchange kind of captured the sense of trust that had been established between the two sides.
NJ: Now both men are gone, along with any trust that once existed between the two sides, and a final negotiated peace agreement seems further away than ever, doesn’t it?
Indyk: At the time, you may recall, the government of Israel had not yet agreed to an independent Palestinian state. That was to be left for final-status negotiations. But Prime Minister Rabin spoke that night about Palestinian statehood, and he said that what was needed was a little separation between Israelis and Palestinians—based not on hatred, but on respect.
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There won’t be any gestures [on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process] by Arab states like the ones that have been talked about... It was always a long shot, but now it’s a much longer one.