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Behind the Headlines: Ambassador’s Career Filled with Intrigue from the Start

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From the start, Martin Indyk’s career as a U.S. official has been filled with intrigue.

As the first Jewish ambassador to Israel and later the top State Department official in charge of Middle East policy, Indyk’s words and actions have been scrutinized by Jews and Arabs, by proponents and opponents of the peace process.

Now, with his security clearance suspended, both Indyk’s words and actions are on hold until the State Department finishes its investigation of his “suspected violations” of security procedures.

Indyk, now back in Washington, is being investigated over whether he mishandled classified material, including the use of unclassified, government-owned laptop computers to write classified documents.

Indyk has expressed regret that “my trying to do the best possible job under very difficult conditions has led to the temporary suspension of my security clearances.”

Other current and former State Department officials say what Indyk is accused of doing has been practiced by many.

State Department officials have emphasized that there is “no indication of espionage in this matter” and that no “intelligence information has been compromised.”

Not since former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has an American Jew had such a strong say in overall U.S. Middle East policy.

Indyk helped signal the end of the days when so-called Arabists determined U.S. policy in the Middle East.

At the same time, critics of U.S. policy in general and Indyk in particular have termed him a “Jewish Arabist” for his approach to the peace process and his early push for a land-for-peace approach in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Indyk, a native Australian who only became a U.S. citizen in 1993, one week before President Clinton appointed him as the National Security Council’s senior director for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, worked as a research associate at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, in 1982.

Later, he was the founding executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

He was appointed U.S. ambassador to Israel in 1995.

In 1997, he became the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and was reappointed ambassador last year.

Since the start of his diplomatic career, Indyk, who is in his late 40s, has received praise for his work on the Middle East, but he has also seen his share of controversies.

Arab Americans had protested Indyk’s nomination, citing what they called his partisan background.

But much of the controversy emanated from the Jewish and Israeli perspective, centering on the Clinton administration’s pursuit of peace in the region, and its policy on Jerusalem in particular.

Indyk caused something of a stir in 1995 when he did not show up for Israel’s opening ceremonies of a 15-month festival celebrating the 3,000th anniversary of the founding of Jerusalem.

Coming at a critical time in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the event had taken on political overtones, leading to the suggestion that Indyk purposely stayed away from the event.

For his part, Indyk said he had seen it only as a “cultural” event and had a prior commitment, but that he was not boycotting the event. He later showed up in New York for the first official U.S. celebration of “Jerusalem 3000.”

Indyk has also been credited with crafting the Clinton administration’s controversial policy on the U.S. Embassy in Israel.

Despite congressional legislation requiring that the embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 1999, Clinton invoked waivers to postpone any action on the embassy until the Palestinians and Israelis agree on the status of Jerusalem in peace talks.

Indyk’s assessment was that moving the embassy would “explode the peace process.”

Just last week, he riled feathers again with a comment that Israel should share Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

Jerusalem “is not, and cannot be, the exclusive preserve of one religion, and the solution cannot come from one side challenging or denying another side’s beliefs,” he was quoted as saying as he received an honorary doctorate from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

Some see the statement as a basic reiteration of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s current thinking; others see it as a shift in U.S. policy.

During his tenure, Indyk was also accused by Likud officials of crafting Clinton’s strategy of openly backing then- Labor leader Shimon Peres in his 1996 contest for prime minister against Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 1997 a right-wing Knesset member hurled an anti-Semitic epithet at Indyk, apparently because he believed the ambassador was pressuring Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

The lawmaker, Rehavam Ze’evi of the Moledet Party, later apologized to Indyk. The Israeli Foreign Ministry criticized Ze’evi’s behavior and called Indyk with an apology.

Indyk was challenged on many of these issues during 1997 Senate confirmation hearings for his appointment to become assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, boosting him to the top Middle East policy post.

Nevertheless, he was easily confirmed for the post in September 1997.

In November 1999, Indyk and Edward Walker, then ambassador to Israel, switched jobs.

Barak, who made peace in the region his administration’s top priority, reportedly wanted Indyk back in his old position.

This coincided with the U.S. interested in maintaining a high-level dialogue between the United States and Israel and refocusing efforts on the peace process.

His second stint as ambassador, where he has continued to be a key player in the past several months of peace efforts, had been relatively controversy-free until now.

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