Sunday 17 August 2008


Martin Indyk's recent visit to Australia seemed to raise questions about where the middle ground on Israel resides.

I recently had an opportunity to hear Martyn Indyk, twice US Ambassador to Israel during the Clinton Presidency, speaking here in Sydney. Indyk has been of special interest to me not least because he lived much of his childhood here in Australia and ascended to some of the most senior foreign policy positions in the United States government. In addition to his Ambassadorial roles, Indyk has served as a special advisor to President Clinton and has also advised the Presidential campaigns of both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama on Middle Eastern issues. This is a man of influence and a reputed moderate.

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Which way moderation?

Indyk's speech at the Lowy Institute in Sydney did not offer lots of optimism - especially on Iran. But he did look forward to the end of the unilateralism of the Bush era and the beginning of a new more humble but engaged US Middle East policy. Indyk held out the hope that a diminished US with a new President may be able to finesse a more effectual policy approach than the unilateralism of the Bush era.

Towards the end of his speech, Indyk was asked whether there was any support in Israel for the notion that Iran's quest for nuclear weapons might simply be for deterrent purposes.

Indyk's response seemed reasonable. He said

"If you are the prime minister of the Jewish state. And you have the responsibility for ensuring the survival of the commonwealth. And that is your primary responsibility because the state has been destroyed and was recreated in a kind of a miracle."

And there you've got in this generation, a leadership in Iran that is saying they want to wipe Israel off the map" "What would you do?"

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The Dome of the Rock from nearby the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Invoking Israeli "miracles" may be unhelpful.

Indyk's argument that a strong Israeli response to repeated Iranian threats of annihilation makes sense. It is not hard to take sides when Iran's President is at one side of the ring.

That same evening I saw Indyk on the Lateline TV programme.

My ears pricked up when I heard him again reference the Israeli "miracle" and Israel's previous destruction. He said "And you know leadership of Israel which has a special responsibility for preserving the Jewish Commonwealth. Having been destroyed before and recreated is some modern miracle. They are not going to tolerate it."

Indyk's references to Israel's "miracle" and its destruction in ancient history are both disturbing. That he referenced the "miracle" twice in a day - seeming to elevate Israel's raison detre beyond the mere human machinations that we assume to be at the heart of the creation of the rest of the world's nation states, represents to me, a drift from moderation. That on both occasions, "the miracle" is described as a "recreation" linking back to an Israel that existed in ancient history concocts a lethal religious - historical fusion that is not unlike that which inspires most of the world's most deadly troubles from the Middle East to South Asia. Those who use ancient history fused with religious allusion as a platform for contemporary claims to statehood are not normally viewed as moderates.

Indyk did not dwell on this issue. Rather, it was a fleeting reference to the ideological platform from which he operates. His references to Israel's "recreation" seemed to imply that its destruction had occurred in a time so recent as to be vivid in the memories of contemporary Israelis. It was remarkable that a man on the progressive side of politics could make such a sweeping and controversial historical assertion and not feel the need on either occasion to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians, the troubled circumstances of the founding of Israel and the contemporary Palestinian claims to land now occupied by Israelis.

No one can deny the remarkable achievement that Israel's creation and survival under threat represents. History is full of "against the odds" stories and Israel has notched up more than its fair share. But that's what they are - "against the odds" stories. It does nothing to diminish their historical significance or the commitment of the founders of Israel to focus on the human elements of their achievement.

George Bush was excoriated for using the language of the Crusades in his post 9/11 speeches. In a region permanently on the brink of bloodshed, it is remarkable that one of the most experienced diplomatic voices of moderation should use references that would not sound out of place from the mouths of the most rabid Islamic or Hindu extremist.

It is hard to believe that someone as practiced in the art of diplomacy as Mr Indyk could use such inflammatory language by accident.

What is important about the "miracle" and "recreation" characterisations is that they are neither even handed, nor moderate.

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