New head of U.S. Mideast team could be in place by next week

WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 (JTA) – Martin Indyk stands on the verge of leading the U.S. State Department Middle East team as it struggles to revive the peace process. With no serious opposition in the Senate, Indyk could assume the post of assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs as early as next week. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was scheduled to hold hearings for President Clinton’s nominee on Thursday. If confirmed, Indyk would realize his dream of serving in the U.S. government’s highest post dedicated to the Middle East. The move would also secure a new series of diplomatic firsts for Indyk, who currently serves as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Indyk became the first Jew to serve as ambassador to Israel when he assumed the post in February 1995. He would also be the first Jew to serve in the assistant secretary post, which has customarily been held by diplomats with experience in Arab countries. Indyk would become the superior of Dennis Ross, who serves as the U.S. Middle East coordinator and serves as a counselor to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. While some opponents of U.S. policy have labeled Indyk a “Jewish Arabist,” criticizing what they consider to be his propensity to oppose Israeli policies, Indyk is certainly no Arabist in the traditional sense. Indyk, who was studying in Israel when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, volunteered as a trash collector in Jerusalem after all classes were cancelled. The Australian-born Indyk, who is in his mid- 40s, worked in the mid-1980s as a consultant for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. After leaving AIPAC, Indyk, was instrumental in founding the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he worked as the think tank’s founding executive director. He received his U.S. citizenship only weeks before Clinton named him director of Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council. Overall, Indyk has received praise for his work in Tel Aviv as U.S. ambassador, but some controversies still plague him today: * Israel’s Likud Party credited him with crafting Clinton’s strategy of openly backing Shimon Peres in last year’s Israeli election; * Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin fumed when Indyk stayed away from the Jerusalem 3000 celebration, calling it a “cultural event”; * Indyk crafted Clinton’s policy to oppose moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; * AIPAC accused Indyk of displaying “faulty moral equivalence” between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli policy; * Some Republican elected officials criticized his handling of their visits to Israel. During the hearing, senators were expected to question Indyk on his experience as well as on the administration’s Jerusalem policy. A 1994 law requires the State Department to make preparations to move the embassy by 1999. Regular reports from the secretary of state to Congress say, however, that no plans are necessary because the embassy could be moved on short notice by renting office space in Jerusalem. Many members of Congress have said this approach violates the spirit of the law, which passed with overwhelming support. Clinton, who agreed with Indyk’s assessment that an embassy move at this time would “explode the peace process,” has vowed to use waivers in the law to prevent a move of the embassy until after the Palestinians and Israelis negotiate the final status of Jerusalem. The Zionist Organization of America has opposed Indyk’s nomination in press releases and some letters to members of Congress but launched “no serious effort to oppose Indyk,” said Morton Klein, president of the ZOA. The Jewish War Veterans also oppose Indyk’s nomination. The sharpest criticism of Indyk’s nomination came from The New Republic in an editorial in its combined Aug. 11 and 18 issue. Headlined the “Know-nothing nominee,” the magazine questioned Indyk’s experience in the Middle East outside of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Indyk knows no Arabic and has never been posted in an Arab or Muslim capital – he has not written a significant word on his subjects,” the editorial said. Indyk is a nominee “who knows Israel poorly and clumsily, and the region almost not at all,” the editorial said. But many Jewish officials who have spent time with Indyk support his nomination. “Martin, a staunch supporter of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, is regarded as an exceptionally capable official and is well respected for his expertise in the Mideast, particularly important during this pivotal period,” said an AIPAC official, who asked not to be identified.

NEXT STORY