Back in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was being careful about quashing any notion that he was hostile to Israel or friendly to its foes. So when it was revealed that Robert Malley was a foreign-policy advisor to his campaign, he was quickly canned. But Malley, who served in the Clinton administration and then subsequently acted as an apologist for Yasir Arafat, had met with Hamas, and was a persistent critic of Israel’s governments (those led by Labor as well as Likud), is back. Last year, after President Obama was reelected, Malley joined his National Security Council. This week, we learned that Malley has gotten a promotion and will now head the Middle East desk at the NSC. As much as any of the rumors floating around Washington about the president’s intention to resurrect the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process, this appointment indicates that the administration is not only determined to make another push but that all the pressure and the inevitable blame for its failure will be placed on Israel.
That a veteran foreign-policy hand that served Bill Clinton would get a job in the Obama administration is hardly a surprise. But Malley is no ordinary ex-Clinton staffer.
As part of the White House staff, Malley joined the president at the 2000 Camp David Summit where then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tried, with Clinton’s urging, to bring the conflict to an end. To do so, he offered Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat independence and sovereignty on terms that no previous Israeli government had ever considered. He put on the table terms that would create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza, most of the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem. But Arafat stunned both Barak and Clinton by saying “no.” He repeated that refusal in the waning days of the Clinton administration in January 2001 even after Barak tried to sweeten the already generous terms. Mahmoud Abbas repeated that refusal when Ehud Olmert offered even better terms in 2008 and again when the Palestinian leader refused to negotiate with current Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Malley understands the reason why the Palestinians refused to make peace. As he admitted in a New York Times op-ed he wrote with Hussein Agha, Palestinians have never let go of their demand for a “right of return” that is incompatible with Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. That’s why neither Arafat nor Abbas is capable of accepting any peace deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
But the significant thing to remember about this NSC appointment is that in the aftermath of Camp David, Malley defended Arafat. Bill Clinton has spent the years since that disaster publicly blasting Arafat for saying no to a golden opportunity to make peace and costing him a Nobel Peace Prize in the bargain. Malley thought it was “simplistic” to simply blame Arafat because he believed it wrong to expect any Palestinian leader to simply end the conflict on terms that provide Israeli security or grants legitimacy to a Jewish state. To Malley’s thinking, the fact that Arafat replied to Barak’s unprecedented and generous peace offer with not only a “no,” but also a terrorist war of attrition known as the Second Intifada was understandable if not necessarily commendable.
His record makes it clear that Malley isn’t merely unsympathetic to the Jewish state but that he views the quest for a two-state solution on any basis that could provide for Israel’s long-term survival as something that Western leaders should not try to impose on the Palestinians.
Thus, putting Malley in a position of influence isn’t merely harmful symbolism as was the case with the 2008 campaign. Rather, by putting him in charge of the Middle East desk at the NSC, the administration is ensuring that any effort to promote the peace process will be predicated solely on pressure on Israel to make concessions on security and its rights while the Palestinians will not be expected to do anything.
That doesn’t sound very different from the American role during the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative. Despite Abbas blowing up the talks by signing a unity pact with Hamas and ditching the talks to go to the United Nations in violation of the PA’s Oslo commitments to gain recognition for the Palestinians, President Obama still blamed it all on Israel. But now that Malley’s role is even more defined there will be no doubt that U.S. policy will be focused exclusively on pressuring Israel. Rather than it being Israel that lacks real faith in a fair two-state solution, with Malley helping to run our Middle East policy it will be the U.S. that will be undermining the admittedly slim hopes for an end to the conflict.
But Malley’s appointment isn’t merely another indication of the president’s antipathy for Israel’s government. It is also a gesture of contempt for pro-Israel Democrats that defended Obama’s bona fides on Israel in both 2008 and 2012. As the president uses his final two years in office to hammer Israel and further undermines the minimal chances for peace by giving the Palestinians license to stonewall negotiations, those friends of Israel would voted for the president should remember how they were suckered.
Even more importantly, as Americans view the drama of the Middle East over the course of the last 22 months of the Obama presidency, they would do well to remember that in an administration that will be consistently blaming Israel for the lack of peace (whether it is led by Benjamin Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog) the person whispering these conclusions in the president’s ear is the same guy that was offering alibis for a terrorist murderer like Yasir Arafat.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at TobinCommentary.