Palestinians question ability of Martin Indyk to mediate peace negotiations with Israel effectively, asking 'Why can't they get someone with no links to any side, like a Mexican-American?'. Taimur Khan reports
Mideast mediator Indyk: 'Another in a long line of pro-Israeli American Jews'
NEW YORK // As Palestinian and Israeli officials begin peace negotiations, a familiar American mediator will be shepherding the two sides.
Martin Indyk, the former United States ambassador to Israel, has been a central figure in previous attempts by Washington to help forge a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, both during the Oslo process in the early 1990s as well as the Camp David talks in 2000 that preceded the second Intifada.
After years of failure, many Palestinian negotiators came to regard Mr Indyk as another in a long line of pro-Israeli American Jews who did more to reinforce Israel's position than act as a neutral guarantor.
"This is always the case - the Americans get someone who is pro-Israel and Jewish. Why can't they get someone with no links to any side, like a Mexican-American?" asked a PLO official in Ramallah.
Many Arab observers now say, however, that Mr Indyk's position has changed during his years out of government. He helped found the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington, forged deep ties in the Arabian Gulf and has been a vocal critic of Israel's right-wing Likud government, which has thrown its support behind settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories.
But serious questions remain over whether a personality liked by both sides can bring about a deal if the White House is not prepared to pressure the Palestinians - and especially Israel - to compromise.
Mr Indyk, 62, was born in London and raised in Australia. After completing his undergraduate studies in Sydney, he travelled to Israel to volunteer on a kibbutz, a Jewish commune, and lived there through the 1973 war, which he referenced on Monday as an inspiration: "In those dark days, I witnessed firsthand how … [former US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger brokered a ceasefire that ended the war and paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt."
His neutrality as a mediator has been questioned because of his connections with Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), a right-wing pro-Israel lobby group he worked for in Washington beginning in 1982 and which wields significant influence on US policy towards the Middle East.
In 1985 he founded the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which was regarded as Aipac's own think tank and a reflection of its ideology and politics.
Observers say that his evolution became apparent after working for the administration of US President Bill Clinton. He was deeply involved in the nitty gritty of Middle East peace negotiations as an adviser to the president and then as ambassador to Israel.
After becoming an American citizen, Mr Indyk served on the National Security Council as a senior director, and closely advised Mr Clinton on Arab-Israeli issues. He was part of the US mediation team that brokered the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994 and was involved with the failed Oslo and the second Camp David negotiations during his two stretches as US ambassador to Israel.
The man who emerged from this crucible had changed in significant ways, observers said.
"He clearly evolved and became a much more centrist figure with a much greater understanding of the politics of the Arab world and the minimal requirements of the Palestinians," said Rami G Khouri, a lecturer of political science at the American University of Beirut who has known Mr Indyk for many years.
Mr Indyk also spent the past decade at Brookings Institution's Saban Centre, including time at its branch in Doha, where he cultivated ties with officials in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf.
That experience helped balance his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said one Washington-based analyst.
"We're no longer talking about a knee-jerk pro-Israel guy," he said.
Mr Indyk "is someone who has had a 3D career" that has had an effect on making him what he is today, he said.
In recent years, he has written critically of Israel's prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, and his right-wing government. He also has argued that resolving Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is a strategic interest for Washington, not just an issue of Israel's national security, a position Palestinian officials have pointed to as a positive.
Mr Indyk has also been tougher on Israel in public than past US peace envoys. Dennis Ross, the US peace envoy under Mr Clinton and an advisor again during Mr Obama's first term, was detested by Palestinian negotiators because he was seen as only reinforcing Israeli positions, not pushing them to compromise.
"It's important for Israel, which holds almost all the cards in this situation, to find a way to deal with [Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas], and to make peace with him, and it's not enough to put your head in the sand and to say that there is no partner," Mr Indyk told Israel's Army Radio last year.
Despite such criticism, Mr Indyk still has the respect of those farther to the right, especially in the US, where selling any eventual deal - which will implicitly involve unpopular compromises on the toughest issues - will be crucial.
"He's going to be the point person that will be dispatched if they do something that troubles the pro-Israel community [in the US]," the Washington-based analyst said. "He is somebody the Jewish lobby can talk to as a friend and he can reassure them that what we're doing is best for Israel."
But few expect success in the peace process unless the White House departs from its usual script that many criticise as decidedly pro-Israel. In addition to asking Palestinians to compromise on refugees and the borders of their hoped-for state, the United States must extract concessions from Israel in terms of its settlements and dividing Jerusalem, analysts say.
Washington was able to effectively broker peace treaties between Israel and its Egyptian and Jordanian neighbours because it "actually leaned on both sides and they each got what they wanted", Mr Khouri said.
Mr Indyk has recently admitted as much, writing in his 2009 book that the US continually backed down during the Camp David talks in 2000.
With Mr Kerry warning that the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing, the final chance for a settlement may now lay with the old-hand Mr Indyk.
* With additional reporting from Hugh Naylor, in Ramallah