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Top Obama Mideast Envoy Steps Down As Peace Talks Crumble

Top U.S. Mideast envoy Martin Indyk resigned Friday amid the apparent collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the clearest signal yet that the administration may soon be throwing in the towel on what has been one of its top foreign-policy initiatives.

Indyk, a veteran diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, will be returning to the Brookings Institution after less than a year in the job. His predecessor, former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, had also resigned after failing to jump-start the moribund talks. Indyk will be replaced by Frank Lowenstein, the envoy's current deputy, but State Department officials declined to comment on whether the team Indyk assembled would continue its work or be disbanded. People familiar with the matter say that several of its top members, including diplomatic expert David Makovsky, will also be leaving this summer.    

Indyk's resignation is a blow to the Obama administration, which has invested enormous amounts of time and political capital in the peace process. When Indyk assumed the post last July, Kerry said the career diplomat would be charged with rejuvenating the faltering peace process with the goal of reaching a comprehensive deal within nine months. That ambitious timetable came and went with no sign that either side was ready to even consider the types of far-reaching concessions that would be necessary in any agreement. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to form a unity government with the militant group Hamas in early June, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to order a violent sweep through the West Bank in search of three kidnapped Israeli teens just weeks later, appear to have been the final nails in the coffin.

In a statement Friday, Kerry said that the United States remained "committed not just to the cause of peace, but to resuming the process when the parties find a path back to serious negotiations." Notably, Kerry didn't highlight any concrete accomplishments by Indyk, who has spent decades working Mideast peace issues and is highly regarded throughout Washington and in many Middle Eastern capitals.

Indyk's departure has been rumored for months, but the veteran diplomat had long dismissed the talk. "I have not resigned my position as Special Envoy and I remain focused on the reassessment process that the Secretary of State is undertaking," Indyk said in an email to Foreign Policy last month.

In an email Friday, Indyk declined to comment on whether any specific incidents caused him to change his mind, referring all questions to the State Department. Still, the recent news from the Mideast has been unrelentingly grim. 

Netanyahu's decision to basically suspend talks with the Abbas government after its unity deal with Hamas, as well as the ongoing Israeli crackdown through the West Bank that has already resulted in hundreds of arrests and at least five deaths, has clearly stopped any hope of near-term progress on a peace agreement. Late Thursday, Israel released the names of what it claimed were the two men behind the kidnappings of three Israeli teenagers. Israeli authorities accused them of being affiliated with Hamas, but didn't provide direct proof for either assertion.

The Obama administration's decision to devote so much time to the Mideast peace process -- which presidents of both parties have pursued, fruitlessly, for decades -- has sparked anger and confusion on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the White House was wasting time on an impossible issue while Egypt was suffering through a succession of political crises, the brutal Syrian civil war was roaring along, and militants were steadily conquering larger portions of Iraq. The administration has insisted that an Israeli-Palestinian deal would spur other positive change throughout the region and prevent a larger future conflict between the two sides.

In April, the roiling tensions between the administration and its critics burst into the open during a bitter exchange between Kerry and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who had served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and each been their party's nominee for president.

"The Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though you may drag them out for a while, are finished," McCain said.

Kerry hit back: "It's interesting that you declare it dead, but the Israelis and the Palestinians don't declare it dead."

"We'll see," McCain interrupted.

"Well, yeah, we will see," Kerry shot back.

"It has stopped. It has stopped. Recognize reality," McCain retorted. 

With the head of the Kerry peace effort resigning Friday, the administration may have to accept that dispiriting reality far sooner than it had hoped.

AFP/Getty Images

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Exclusive: President Frank Underwood Wants a Seat at the Security Council. Is Anyone Brave Enough to Say No?

President Frank Underwood, the ruthless, scheming protagonist of the Netflix series House of Cards, murdered his way to the Oval Office. What will he have to do to get a seat at the U.N. Security Council?

Netflix producers recently approached the United Nations to see if they can film two episodes of the program, starring Kevin Spacey as the president and Robin Wright as the first lady, in August, according to U.N. officials and diplomats. Shooting would take place in the North Delegates' Lounge and in the U.N. Security Council room itself. Like anything serious happening at the United Nations, that means getting the approval of all 15 members of the Security Council, in particular big powers like Britain, Russia, and China. And it's not at all clear that they'll all be willing to say yes without some Hollywood-style diplomacy.

The request has been passed along to Britain, which will preside over the council's presidency in August. British diplomats have detailed the request to the rest of council's 15 member states. The issue might be the subject of debate by Security Council diplomats as early as Tuesday.

"The filming will depict interior scenes inside and outside of the council and some discussions between ambassadors," said one council diplomat, who said the crew would shoot on the weekends and at night. "But there is no details about the script. And there is no information yet about whether Kevin Spacey will be present."

The petition comes at a time when the United Nations has been assiduously courting Hollywood in the hopes it can harness the film industry's star power to promote U.N. causes.

The U.N. Creative Community Initiative -- a U.N. public relations outreach to the Hollywood film industry -- brings U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarian relief workers together with filmmakers and actors to develop story lines around issues the U.N. tracks, such as political conflict and sexual trafficking. When creators of the since-canceled NBC series Revolution needed help imagining what life would be like for Americans if they lived in a failed state lacking the basic necessities, including electricity, they turned to U.N. staffers.

"The U.N. offered the show's writers access to U.N. staff with field experience in not only life without electricity but also areas of the world suffering the catastrophic impact of both man-made and natural disasters," according to an NBC promotion describing the relationship." Show creator Eric Kripke and his team heard stories of negotiating with warlords for the release of child soldiers, building relationships with rebel forces to gain humanitarian access for their people and the struggle to survive in a refugee camp."

The U.N.'s relationship with Hollywood wasn't always so cozy. The U.N. denied Alfred Hitchcock's request to film a murder scene for his 1959 masterpiece, North by Northwest, in the North Delegates' Lounge. For more than four decades, Hollywood filmmakers were not welcome at Turtle Bay.

But top U.N. officials came around to recognizing the public relations value of setting blockbuster films at the United Nations, particularly if they could secure agreements with filmmakers that they wouldn't trash the organization.

The U.N. has opened its doors increasingly to film and TV production companies since 2004, when Kofi Annan yielded to repeated pleas from Sydney Pollack, the late Academy Award-winning director of Out of Africa, to film The Interpreter, a political thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, on the U.N. campus.

The U.N. has since green-lighted filming in the U.N. General Assembly for Steven Soderbergh's 2008 biopic, Che, starring Benicio Del Toro as the leftist Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Other film and TV programs that have been shot at U.N. headquarters include an episode of Ugly Betty that dealt with malaria; Law and Order, which addressed the plight of Central African child soldiers; and an Israeli cooking program called the Flying Chef. In 2010, it opened the General Assembly Hall open to the producers of the robot action flick Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

U.N. officials have already reviewed the House of Cards script to determine whether it contains a storyline that might be deemed too offensive to U.N. member states. They have assured the council members that if they approve the plan, the filmmakers will get out of the way in the event of an international crisis requiring an emergency session of the world's premier security body. Officials declined to discuss the script, citing a confidentiality agreement with Netflix, which distributes House of Cards.

But the final decision will have to be made by the U.N. Security Council, where the United States, Britain, China, and Russia all have the power to veto any filming around the iconic horseshoe table that has launched military interventions from Iraq to East Timor and Somalia.

The big powers have previously allowed the chamber to be used for an Annie Leibovitz's shoot of Susan Rice for Vogue Magazine and for the filming of a French diplomatic comedy, Quai D'Orsay, by the French director, Bertrand Tavernier.

So far, no one has objected to House of Cards, though diplomats are keeping a close watch on China. U.S.-Chinese relations figured prominently in several episodes of the show's second seasons, including a storyline that had Underwood negotiating land deals with a corrupt Chinese businessman. "Chinese cyber-theft, currency manipulation, a trade dispute involving rare-earth minerals, and escalating tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea all make an appearance in the show, rendered in the kind of detail that will ring mostly true with China watchers," according to a review in the Wall Street Journal. But the show is reportedly highly popular with Chinese viewers, including members of China's communist leadership. A spokesman for the Chinese mission to the United Nations did not respond to requests for comment.

Perhaps the producers could offer some enticements, say a cameo appearance for a top Chinese diplomat. Other diplomats say they are already angling for a moment in the spotlight.

One council diplomat mused about the possibility of landing a supporting role in the show, but then thought better of the idea.

"There are a lot of people dying brutal deaths," the diplomat said, recalling Underwood's murder of journalist Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara, by pushing her in front of an oncoming train. "Maybe it's a little too dangerous to participate."

Jason Kempin/ Getty Images