Martin Indyk Explains the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process

There is a "deep loathing" between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, America's Mideast envoy said in his first interview since stepping down.

ASPEN, Colo.—Take a good look at the image above. That now-iconic handshake took place 20 years ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met on the White House lawn to sign the Oslo Accords.

The moment represented the last major breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Martin Indyk told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in his first interview since stepping down last week as the Obama administration's Mideast peace envoy. And that process is now dead, he added, at least for now.

In the two decades since the Oslo Accords, a "a deep, deep skepticism" about negotiations has taken root among Israelis and Palestinians, particularly among younger generations for whom Oslo is a distant memory, if a memory at all. In particular, young Palestinians, who have "grown up under Israeli occupation" and "seen [Jewish] settlements grow," have jettisoned hope "that the Israelis will ever grant them their rights." The majorities on both sides that once supported a two-state solution are no more.

Crucially, this corrosive mistrust extends to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen).

"There is a deep loathing of each leader for the other that has built up over the years," Indyk told Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. "'Loathing' may be too strong [a word] for how Netanyahu feels about Abu Mazen," he later clarified, "but it's certainly the way Abu Mazen feels about Netanyahu. He refers to him as 'that man.'"

It is these fundamental divisions that just torpedoed the latest U.S. effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, which Indyk and Secretary of State John Kerry have spent the past nine months trying to midwife. And they're what make Indyk so nervous about the current bout of violence between the two sides, following the murder of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers in the West Bank and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem.

"I fear the worst here," Indyk said. "What you've got now is ... a more rapidly deteriorating situation in which all of the worst fears and worst assumptions about the other side are being confirmed."

Indyk rejected the notion that the Obama administration frittered away precious diplomatic energy on a long-elusive Mideast peace agreement while Syria and Iraq imploded, arguing that Kerry and others didn't forsake those other regional issues.

Instead he delivered a frank postmortem on the process, detailing how excruciatingly close negotiators were to a deal and why they ultimately fell short of one. Initially, Israel agreed to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners in four stages in return for the Palestinians not signing international conventions or attempting to join UN agencies. After six months of direct negotiations between the parties, he explained, Netanyahu "moved into the zone of a possible agreement" and was prepared to make substantial concessions.

But then, beginning in mid-February, Abbas suddenly "shut down." By the time the Palestinian leader visited Obama in Washington in March, he "had checked out of the negotiations," repeatedly telling U.S. officials that he would "study" their proposals, Indyk said. Abbas later signed 15 international conventions and struck a unity deal with the Gaza-based militant group Hamas. These moves deflated the peace process.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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