The Strange Case of Robert Malley

Of all the recent efforts to smear Barack Obama, none strikes me as stranger than the claims that one of his informal advisers on foreign affairs, Robert Malley, is anti-Israel. This, in turn, is supposed to prove that as president, Obama is liable to institute dangerous changes in U.S. policy toward Israel.

As a campaign trope, the calumny may have begun with Ed Lasky, news editor of the right-wing Web site The American Thinker, who posted a fervid attack on Malley in January. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America has taken time off from its hawkish media-bashing to post a blast at Malley on its Web site. Journalists regularly speculate on whether the Malley connection will hurt Obama among Jewish voters, though there's no evidence of that. Meanwhile, Malley's diplomatic colleagues -- including Sandy Berger, Dennis Ross, and Martin Indyk -- have issued an open letter defending him.

There's more at work here than the usual, nearly boring, attempts to slime a liberal candidate as anti-Israel for the "sin" of supporting what Israel needs most -- determined diplomatic efforts to achieve peace. Lurking in the background is another of the battles over how Israel-Palestinian history is told. In that fight, the original furious critic of Barack Obama's adviser is former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. There's also a lesson about Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy: Besides settling the practical questions, it requires resolving the conflicting narratives about the past. To approach this task, the next president will need not just hard work but a gift with rhetoric, with words.

The Malley story actually goes back to 2001, when the former Clinton foreign-policy staffer began writing about what went wrong at the Camp David summit the summer before. First in The New York Times, then in a joint article with Hussein Agha in The New York Review of Books, Malley described mistakes made by Israel and the United States, not just by the Palestinians, that led to the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

As special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, Malley was part of the American negotiating team at Camp David. Today he is the Middle East director for the International Crisis Group and one of many informal advisers to the Obama campaign. Though it should not be necessary to mention this, he is Jewish. Agha, his frequent co-author, is an expert on Palestinian affairs, today at Oxford.

As Malley wrote in the Times, by 2001 the accepted story of the long summit was that "Camp David is said to have been a test that Mr. Barak passed and Mr. Arafat failed." While rejecting that simplistic account, he and Agha did not spare criticism of the Palestinian side. "The Palestinians' principal failing is that they were unable either to say yes to the American ideas or to present a cogent and specific counterproposal of their own," they wrote in their detailed New York Review article. Even more telling is their assertion that for the Palestinians "Oslo ... was not about negotiating peace terms but terms of surrender." This was hardly an attitude likely to lead to creative diplomacy.

But Malley and Agha also described the mistakes of Clinton and, particularly, of Barak. As prime minister, Barak first tried to negotiate with Syria, treating the Palestinians as second priority. More concerned with not upsetting Israeli settlers than with addressing Palestinian concerns, he allowed rapid settlement construction to continue. He prevented any progress in preliminary negotiations, insisting that a peace deal would have to be put together at the conclusive summit. To the Palestinians, these moves radiated arrogance and were an attempt to force them into a corner. Once at Camp David, Barak did go beyond what Israel had offered earlier yet kept his position ambiguous. The Palestinians did make concessions, but neither side went far enough to bridge the chasm between their positions. As for Clinton, his errors began with pushing Arafat into an ill-prepared summit.

No one answered Malley with more outrage than Barak. Barak, once intent on making peace, was trying to salvage his own reputation after the collapse of the process and of his premiership. To do that, he was willing to reinforce a narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has deep resonance for many Israelis and Diaspora Jews -- but that warps history, harms peace efforts, and ultimately hurts Israel itself.

Barak delivered his response to Malley and Agha in The New York Review of Books nearly a year later, in an interview with Benny Morris. This in itself was deeply ironic: Among Israeli historians, Morris has been the most insistent that interviews are to be mistrusted, that history can only be constructed through documents. In Morris' description, "Barak continuously shifts between charging Arafat with 'lacking the character or will' to make a historic compromise ... and accusing him of secretly planning Israel's demise." Arafat's plan, he said, was to establish a state only as a step toward gaining all of Palestine. As Morris hints, this is indeed a contradiction, because if Arafat had really regarded any deal as temporary, he could have settled for less.

Barak also asserted an essentialist cultural divide that made agreement impossible: The Palestinians "are products of a culture in which to tell a lie ... creates no dissonance. They don't suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture," he told Morris. To explain why he had not succeeded, he argued that success was impossible -- a description that offered much comfort to hawks who had once opposed him.

It will be many years before documents are available to reconstruct what happened at Camp David. In the meantime, Malley and Agha's version rings true for several reasons. Diplomacy is complex, rife with misunderstandings. New York Times correspondent Deborah Sontag, in an extensively researched article, reached a similar picture (also enraging Barak).

My own journalistic experience with Barak suggests that he approached diplomacy belligerently. I interviewed him for The New Republic in 1997, just after he was chosen as leader of the Labor party. When I put my tape recorder down on his desk at the start of the conversation, a Barak aide demonstratively put down another recorder, as if to tell me: "We're keeping track of you." I've never met that gesture of suspicion from any other politician. In the interview, he compared peace negotiations to Greco-Roman wrestling -- "a form of struggle with agreed rules." It makes more sense to accept Barak's a priori description of his negotiating philosophy than his ex post facto explanations. Going to Camp David, Barak was brave in seeking an agreement but was also tragically unsuited by temperament to achieve what he wanted.

What's interesting is how tenaciously Barak's version has been accepted by many supporters of Israel. The reason, I'd suggest, can be found in a superb recent book by Bryn Mawr political scientist Marc Howard Ross, Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflicts. (Disclosure: Ross and I have cooperated professionally in the past, and I'm in his acknowledgments.) Ross doesn't deal specifically with Camp David. But he describes the historical narratives that ethnic groups build to explain their past, their present, and their relation to their opponents. The narratives are "compelling, coherent" and link "specific events to that group's general understandings." They are also selective and inaccurate. Disagreement with a group's memory is often perceived as an attack on its identity, if not its existence.

The most common versions of the Israeli and Palestinian narrative share this: Each side perceives the other as wanting to push it out of the land through both aggression and artifice. Those stories helped foil the talks at Camp David. They also shape the post mortems. The story told by Barak, erstwhile peacemaker, reinforces the old story of conflict. Malley's account -- a careful, scholarly telling by a diplomat committed to Israel's future -- is met with ferocious emotion by those who misperceive it as an assault on Israel's very existence. The reaction becomes another obstacle to understanding of the past and to future compromise.

There's two implications here: Precisely because he is committed to Israel's well-being, Barack Obama will do well to listen to Robert Malley's analysis of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. But if he has the opportunity, beginning next January, to renew diplomatic efforts, he will need to do more than reconcile conflicting interests. He will have to look for ways to reconcile the conflicting stories. The right choice of words will be critical. It's said that Obama has some skill in that realm.

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