Robert Malley’s Return

February 24, 2014

3 min read

That there is widespread anxiety over the Obama administration’s Middle East policies is hardly a secret. If we have learned anything over the past six years it is that, contrary to the conspiratorial theory that the so-called “Israel Lobby” is the ultimate authority when it comes to Washington’s stance in the region, the opposite is true. It is presidents and their appointees who make policies, based on their assessment of the strategic interests of the United States at a given moment. In that framework, the “Lobby” only enjoys success when it pushes for outcomes that are in sync with the thinking of the administration.

Under Obama, the U.S. has pushed policies that directly clash with the long-established positions of pro-Israel groups. Pressuring Israel in the context of the stop-again, start again negotiations with the Palestinians—for example, by publicly and vocally warning that continuing settlement of the West Bank will fuel anti-Israel boycotts—has become integral to the administration’s discourse. Engaging the Iranian regime over its nuclear program, through a process that does little to technically prevent Tehran from pursuing the goal of weaponization, has emerged as the centerpiece of Obama’s approach to the Middle East.

When it comes to personnel selection, the not-so-powerful “Israel Lobby” has had no choice about swallowing the bitter pill of appointments that it regards with suspicion. Most famously, that was the case with the appointment of Chuck Hagel, who in the past expressed near-virulent criticisms of Israel, as secretary of defense. And it is similarly the case with the new appointment of Robert Malley, a former Middle East peace negotiator from the Clinton administration, as a senior director at the National Security Council, where he will manage relations with the Persian Gulf states. Given the enormous tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s tempting to think that working on the Israeli-Palestinian track is a cakewalk by comparison.

Among pro-Israel advocates, Malley is distrusted because he broke with the consensus—shared by President Bill Clinton himself, among others—that the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit was the fault of the late PLO leader, Yasser Arafat. In an August 2001 article for The New York Review of Books, Malley and co-author Hussein Agha wrote sympathetically of Arafat’s conviction “that the Israelis were setting a trap” at Camp David.

“The Camp David proposals were viewed as inadequate: they were silent on the question of refugees, the land exchange was unbalanced, and both the Haram and much of Arab East Jerusalem were to remain under Israeli sovereignty,” they wrote. From the standpoint of Israel’s own security interests, those observations were uncomfortably aligned with the Palestinian refusal, exemplified by the insistence on the so-called “right of return,” to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a refusal that persists in our own day.

Then there was Malley’s meeting in 2008—when he worked for the International Crisis Group, a high-level NGO—with representatives of Hamas. At the time, that led to a break with the Obama presidential campaign, which Malley was informally advising. Though Hamas is blacklisted by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, Malley defended his interaction by saying, “If you want to have movement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority you’re going to have to find some way of neutralizing Hamas’s spoiling capacity, and that means to some extent, to some extent, engaging with it.”

Interestingly, Malley has also strongly criticized the man who now employs him over the Middle East. “An administration that never tires of saying it cannot want peace more than the parties routinely belies that claim by the desperation it exhibits in pursuing that goal,” he wrote of Obama in 2011. “Today, there is little trust, no direct talks, no settlement freeze, and, one at times suspects, not much of a U.S. policy.” Nor does he apparently subscribe to the view that the primary requirement for peace in the region is a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whereas the Obama administration frequently gives the impression that this is in fact the case. “The recent focus on Arab-Israeli relations has helped foster the belief that Middle East diplomacy can be reduced to that single dimension,” Malley wrote in a 2001 book review for Foreign Affairs. “It cannot.”

If there was, in Malley’s words, “not much of a U.S. policy” in 2011, there is one now. Critics have called it “leading from behind.” Supporters term it “engagement.” Semantics aside, during the Obama years, the key strategic transformation in the region has been the strengthening of Iran. Hence, it is easy to understand why the idea of someone running Iran policy who is a keen advocate of engagement, and who believes that Iranian ally Hamas should not be isolated, is so disconcerting.

The nature of Malley’s new job, however, should reassure pro-Israel groups that they won’t be privately grappling with him at every turn. That role will fall to the Saudis, who are furious with Obama’s overtures to Iran. As this story unfolds, watch for the possibility that Malley, supposedly the bête noire of the “Israel Lobby,” will arouse the venom of the well-paid and influential Saudi lobbyists in Washington.

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