The Jewish anti-Israel co-head of the radical left-wing group Code Pink, Ariel Gold, supports the appointment of Robert Malley as the next US special representative to Iran.
As does columnist Peter Beinart, who no longer believes in a Jewish state; Iranian nuclear deal cheerleader and echo chamber creator Ben Rhodes; and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democrat from Vermont.
And all that says something. One of the things it says – according to former Israeli officials who over the years have worked with Malley – is that for Israel, this appointment would not be good news.
Malley, currently the CEO and president of the Brussels-headquartered International Crisis Group, was mentioned last week in the website The Jewish Insider as a possible candidate for the top Iran job in US President Joe Biden’s administration, and this triggered a flurry of debate regarding the appointment.
While Code Pink, Beinart, Rhodes, Sanders and J Street all gushed about it, concern was voiced on the other side of the political divide by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, as well as Americans who were imprisoned in Iran, such as Chinese American Xiyue Wang.
Wang, a Princeton doctoral student arrested in 2016 and only released three years later, said in a Twitter post that when Malley was in the White House, he “played no positive role in facilitating my release” – and that his appointment would send a message to Tehran that Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s testimony during his Senate confirmation hearing, about strengthening the Iranian nuclear deal and standing up for human rights in Iran, “were merely empty words.”
Republican Cotton tweeted: “It’s deeply troubling that President Biden would consider appointing Rob Malley to direct Iran policy. Malley has a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel. The ayatollahs wouldn’t believe their luck if he is selected.”
Code Pink, predictably, termed this a “backlash from a motley crew of war hawks, both domestic and foreign.”
This type of squabble surrounding the possibility that Malley might be picked was not evident in the selection of any other member to Biden’s top national security team, from Blinken, to his number two, Wendy Sherman, to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. And all of them, like Malley, worked for and whole-heartedly supported the Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
But Malley is different, said one former senior Israeli diplomatic official, because he is a progressive “ideologue,” while the others are not. This is why the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, like Sanders, are pushing for his appointment. So far, they have not succeeded in landing any top national security position. Malley being tapped on Iran would be a coup.
“Rob Malley is an extremely knowledgeable expert with great experience in promoting US security through diplomacy rather than war,” Sanders posted on Facebook. “He would be an excellent choice for the role of Iran envoy.” Malley reportedly gave Sanders foreign policy advice during the senator’s unsuccessful run for president last year.
AMONG OTHERS who have come out for his appointment are veteran Mideast hand Aaron David Miller and Gilead Sher, Ehud Barak’s chief of staff when he was prime minister.
“Rob Malley will make a superb Iran envoy,” Sher tweeted. “We had our differences over the years, however they affected neither trust nor friendship. Rob is exceptionally knowledgeable, and he knows bargaining w/the devil won’t be an easy task.”
Malley is the son of an Egyptian Jewish journalist – Simon Malley – who lived in the US and France and was a champion in the 1950s, 60s and 70s of Third World liberation movements, including that of the Palestinians.
The younger Malley served in the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, ending up with the title of special assistant to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs. After George W. Bush took office in 2001, Malley went to think tanks, becoming program director for Middle East and North Africa Affairs at the International Crisis Group.
He had an unofficial relationship with the Obama campaign in 2008, but that ended unceremoniously when it was revealed that he held talks with Hamas representatives. Nevertheless, six years later Obama brought him into his National Security Council, first as an adviser to the president on the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf, and then as the council’s point man on dealing with ISIS.
Malley’s position on Iran is clear: He is a strong advocate of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. He was opposed last year to the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and was opposed as well to former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s 12 conditions for lifting sanctions on Tehran.
But that is not the only reason why his name currently elicits low grunts of “oy” in the corridors of power in Jerusalem. He was a negotiator at the Camp David talks in 2000, and afterward was a leading voice saying that Yasser Arafat was not to blame for the breakdown of the talks, but rather that he was merely avoiding falling into a trap.
Former US president Bill Clinton, as well as the head of Clinton’s Mideast peace team Dennis Ross, placed the blame for the failure to conclude a deal at Camp David heavily on Arafat’s shoulders. Malley, however, wrote a much-cited piece in the New York Review of Books with a former Palestinian negotiator, Hussein Agha, seeking to alter that perception.
“He [Malley] is best remembered in Israel as the person who let Arafat off the hook,” said one former senior official. “Malley said that Barak’s offer was not serious, and that Arafat was set up by Barak and Clinton. He let off the hook a man who rejected a genuine peace offer, and then initiated a terrorist war [the Second Intifada] responsible for more than a thousand Israeli deaths.”
Malley’s piece, the official said, “has had a big impact in academia as to what transpired at Camp David, and had an equally big impact on very left-wing Jewish groups.” His piece was the counterpoint to Israel’s “narrative” that it offered peace at Camp David, and got a terrorist war in return.
The Biden administration has so far not commented on a possible Malley appointment, and it is quite possible that the report in the Jewish Insider was a trial balloon floated by an administration official to gauge reaction, or as an attempt by someone to sabotage it.
Either way, officials in Israel, the Gulf and Iran will be watching carefully to see what Biden decides – because whatever decision the new president makes regarding Malley will be, it will send a strong message of his intentions in the region.