The Cable

Indyk Admits Mideast Peace Process Is Dead

This story has been updated. 

ASPEN, Colo. — The former top U.S. envoy to the Middle East said that trust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders has completely dissolved, leaving him exceptionally pessimistic about the prospects of restoring negotiations over a lasting peace settlement between their two peoples.

"There is a deep loathing of each leader for the other that has built up over the years," Martin Indyk told an audience of several hundred people at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado in response to questions from the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. Indyk, in his first public remarks since stepping down as the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on June 27, said the distance between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems unbridgeable. "There is no trust between them. Neither believes that the other is serious," Indyk said.

The former envoy was unsparing in his criticism of both men, but he strongly defended the Obama administration's efforts to forge a settlement and a path toward a Palestinian state that would exist peacefully with Israel. Indyk praised the personal efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been criticized on Capitol Hill and in foreign-policy circles for spending too much time on brokering a deal that never showed much chance of hope, while a civil war raged in Syria and jihadists conquered portions of Iraq. That criticism has flared anew after the final fumes of the U.S.-led peace process dissipated recently amid an ongoing -- and bloody -- Israeli offensive into the West Bank and Gaza following the murder of three Israeli teenagers.

"It's not as if John Kerry was ignoring these other issues," Indyk said. "He is indefatigable. It's not as if he can't do more than one thing."

Indyk said Kerry came into office with the peace process as a personal priority and had the backing of President Barack Obama. But in the end, he said, the United States found itself negotiating with two leaders who, while committed to a two-state solution, could not sell a deal to their people.  

"We gave it everything we had, and we got nowhere," Indyk said, laying the blame "50-50" between Netanyahu and Abbas. Negotiations officially ended in April when Abbas opted to press for statehood through the United Nations rather than continue, a move that Israel had long said would be a deal-breaker.

In recounting a nearly yearlong series of negotiations, Indyk said that both sides identified the agreement gaps early on and that Netanyahu eventually moved into "the zone of a possible agreement" on such thorny issues as the status of territories, Jerusalem, and mutual recognition of Israel's and Palestine's rights to exist.

But during Abbas's visit to Washington in March, he effectively "checked out" from the talks and stopped responding to proposals from the Obama administration on how to close a deal, Indyk said. After that, the process spiraled downward and intensified during negotiations over the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Abbas said he decided to seek statehood at the U.N. after Israel refused to release a fourth group of prisoners. But Indyk said that Abbas was also frustrated by Israel's announced plans to construct new settlements, which had coincided with the release of each group of prisoners. An impression took hold among Palestinians that Abbas was paying for the prisoners' freedom by ceding away more territory to Israel, Indyk said, an impression that Netanyahu's government did nothing to counter.

"[Abbas] became humiliated in the eyes of his people," Indyk said. Abbas then concluded he could withdraw from the talks or be overthrown.

"President [Obama] himself still considers it a priority," Indyk said. "He would still like to see a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on his watch. At the moment, he's declared a pause, but he's not walking away. He's ready to come back. He's even said he's ready to bring me back to rework it."

That seems highly unlikely following the Israeli teen murders by suspected Hamas militants, which were followed by an apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager, whose burned body was found on Wednesday in a Jerusalem forest.

"Essentially what you've got now is a more rapidly deteriorating situation in which all of the worst fears and assumptions about the other side are being confirmed," Indyk said. And that mistrust is especially pronounced among younger Palestinians, who've "grown up under Israeli occupation. [They] simply don't believe that the Israelis will ever grant them their rights."

Reflecting on decades invested in trying to forge a lasting peace, Indyk recalled the historic September 1993 handshake between Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's prime minister, and Yasir Arafat, then P.L.O. chairman, on the South Lawn of the White House, sealing the first agreement to end the long conflict. Indyk witnessed this "with tears of hope" in his eyes. "But it's 20 years since then, and so many people have died and so many hopes have been dashed on both sides that there is a deep, deep skepticism in the heart of the people, Israelis and Palestinians," Indyk said. "People on both sides do not believe that [peace] is possible."

Paul J. Richards / AFP

The Cable

Former U.S. Envoy: Snowden 'Manna From Heaven for the Russians'

ASPEN, Colo. — The former U.S. ambassador to Russia says Edward Snowden's continuing political asylum in Moscow has been an intelligence and public relations boon to President Vladimir Putin.

Michael McFaul, who left Moscow in February, told a large crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival here that Snowden "knows things that are useful to Russian intelligence" about the inner workings of U.S. eavesdropping and surveillance. While the former diplomat said that he had no particular information that Snowden, an ex-contractor for the National Security Agency, was sharing classified information with his Russian hosts, McFaul said the Russians were probably doing everything they could to glean secrets from Snowden. If a Russian intelligence operative with Snowden's level of knowledge had showed up in the United States, he too would have been granted immediate asylum, McFaul said.

"This was just manna from heaven for the Russians," McFaul said.

Snowden has consistently denied suggestions from U.S. officials that he has given Russia classified information -- either from a computer or based on what's in his head -- in exchange for asylum there. Nevertheless, McFaul said, even if Snowden isn't sharing secrets, he handed Putin a political and PR victory by remaining in Russia. Putin embraced Snowden as a fellow spy in a television broadcast in April. And, McFaul said, Snowden has said little about Russia's own aggressive surveillance operations, which he said include recording the phone calls of American diplomats and then posting them on the Internet.

"From the Russian perspective, this has been great," McFaul told the conference.

McFaul recalled a series of high-level meetings in 2013 following Snowden's disclosures, when Obama administration officials huddled about how to contain the fallout from his revelations. McFaul took part in conversations via video teleconference, often late into the night Moscow time. "On a personal level, that guy really ruined my summer last year," McFaul joked about Snowden. But, he allowed, "The debate he raised is an important one" about the limits of U.S. intelligence gathering and personal privacy.

McFaul didn't predict how much longer Snowden might stay in Russia, but he said that the American fugitive "has options to come home" to the United States. In an interview with NBC News anchor Brian Williams in May, Snowden said that he would like to return and appeared open to the possibility of a deal with federal prosecutors that would allow him to avoid a long prison sentence. McFaul, who's now a consultant for NBC News, said he helped Williams prepare for the Snowden interview.

Turning to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where a cease-fire ended on Wednesday with an eruption of violent clashes between the central government and Russian separatists, McFaul said that Putin could end the hostilities at any moment he chooses. If the Russian strongman were to appear on national television and tell separatist fighters battling Ukraine's fragile central government to lay down their arms, the conflict "would be over in a heartbeat," McFaul said.

McFaul dismissed suggestions that Putin wanted to effectively rebuild the former Soviet Union by taking over more territory. Instead, the diplomat said that Putin's decision to conquer and annex Ukraine's Crimean peninsula was driven by his fury over the collapse of the Ukrainian government and the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, a close Putin ally. In early 2013, McFaul said, Obama administration officials had been working hard to broker a peaceful settlement between Yanukovych and his political opponents. But when those talks ultimately failed and Yanukovych fled the capital, Putin concluded that the Americans had "duped him" and had helped install a new government that was hostile to Moscow.

"That's when [Putin] said, 'To hell with them. I'm done worrying about what [the Americans and the Europeans] think of me,'" McFaul said. "And that's when he decided to go into Crimea."