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Posted: February 11, 2009 10:18 a.m.

Insider’s guide to Middle East leaders

Former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk's new book on efforts by President Bill Clinton to resolve security issues in the Middle East is at times a lively insider's guide into the persnickety personality issues of well-known players in the region.

For readers not familiar with the inner-workings of the Arab/Israeli conflict, "Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East" can at times read a bit wonkish with lots of issue-specific details casually tossed around.

A strong point of the book is that it does not make any overt ideological pleas for support for Israeli or Arab sides of the issue, a rarity in books dealing with the Middle East peace process.

If there is a common theme of the book it is that nearly every single Middle Eastern leader involved in the peace talks has sacrificed long-term prospects of a strong and lasting peace between Israel and the Arab world for short-term tactical political victories.

As a two-time ambassador to Israel during the administrations of Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, Indyk was very much a part of the inside circle negotiating for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Among the more interesting details revealed in the book are the elaborate lengths by which Clinton and his aides went to prevent Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and later president of the Palestinian Authority, from kissing Clinton on both cheeks, a practice for which he was notorious.

Less amusing though are details that reveal just how close Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was to agreeing to a peace deal with Israel in the last days of his life. After much hemming and hawing for the first seven years of Clinton's administration to overtures by the United States to agree to a peace deal, sensing that he was not long for the world, Assad did an about-face.

He dropped all previous peace talk preconditions to international lines distinguishing the border between Israel and Syria and urged Clinton to negotiate a peace agreement with Barak that would have satisfied Israeli security concerns about giving up the high ground of the Golan Heights.

Unfortunately, by that time Barak was struggling to manage a rapidly fracturing coalition government and was so concerned with worries that the Israeli public would perceive him as weak if he agreed too quickly to a peace deal that he dragged his feet long enough for details of the peace agreement to leak to the Israeli press. The embarrassment over this caused Assad to back out of the peace deal, which has since languished in the eight years of the Bush presidency.

Like ships passing in the night, that is the story of peacemaking attempts in the region. When one side is ready to make peace, the other side is ready to pull back and American peacemakers frequently find themselves flummoxed by the long-memories and deep-seated hurts of Arab and Israeli leaders who remember past wrongs like they were yesterday.

Future American peacemakers would do well to head the advice of Indyk and remember that "when the rare moment arises that an Arab leader indicates a willingness to make peace, and reveals a sense of urgency, it is essential to capitalize on it immediately and pursue the opportunity relentlessly until the breakthrough is achieved and the deal is closed."


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