Robert Malley was born in 1963 and lived in France from 1969-80. His mother—a native New Yorker—worked for the United Nations delegation of the National Liberation Front, the leftist, anti-American political party that led the independence movement in Algeria in the 1950s and early ’60s. Robert’s father, the late Simon Malley, was a key figure in the Egyptian Communist Party. The elder Malley was bitterly anti-Israel; a confidante of PLO leader Yasser Arafat; an inveterate critic of “Western imperialism”; a supporter of various leftist revolutionary “liberation movements,” particularly the Palestinian cause; a beneficiary of Soviet funding; and a backer of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Robert Malley attended Yale University and in 1984 was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy. He then went on to earn a J.D. at Harvard Law School, which he attended at the same time as Barack Obama. And in 1991–92, Malley clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White.
After his clerkship, Malley became a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he published The Call From Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution, and the Turn to Islam—a book that charts Algeria’s political evolution beginning from the turn of the 20th century.
Malley subsequently served as the U.S. National Security Council’s Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Affairs from 1994-96; National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s executive assistant from 1996-98; and President Bill Clinton’s Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs from 1998-2001. In July 2000 he was a member of the U.S. peace team that participated in the Camp David Summit between Bill Clinton (who brokered the talks), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The talks ended without an agreement.
Since 2001, Malley has written several controversial articles—some were co-authored with Hussein Agha, a former advisor to Arafat—blaming Israel and exonerating Arafat for the failure at Camp David. For instance, in a July 2001 op-ed (titled “Fictions About the Failure at Camp David”) which was published in the New York Times, Malley alleged that Israeli—not Palestinian—inflexibility had caused the previous year’s peace talks to fail.
In an August 9, 2001 piece, “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” Malley and Agha again dismissed claims that the Camp David talks had failed when “Ehud Barak’s unprecedented offer” was met with “Yasser Arafat’s uncompromising no.” Rather, they wrote that Barak had taken an unnecessarily hard-line approach in negotiating with Arafat. According to the authors, Arafat believed that Barak was intent on “either forcing him to swallow an unconscionable deal or mobilizing the world to isolate and weaken the Palestinians if they refused to yield.”
Malley’s identification of Israel as the cause of the Camp David failure has been widely embraced by Palestinian and Arab activists around the world, by Holocaust deniers like Norman Finkelstein, and by anti-Israel publications such as Counterpunch. According to American Thinker news editor Ed Lasky, Malley “was also believed to be the chief source for an article [dated July 26, 2001] by Deborah Sontag that whitewashed Arafat’s role in the collapse of the peace process, an article that has been widely criticized as riddled with errors and bias.”
Malley’s account of the Camp David negotiations is entirely inconsistent with the recollections of the key figures who participated in those talks, most notably then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross (Clinton’s Middle East envoy). According to Ross, the peace efforts failed for one reason only: because Arafat wanted them to fail. “[F]undamentally,” said Ross, “I do not believe he [Arafat] can end the conflict. We had one critical clause in this agreement, and that clause was, this is the end of the conflict. Arafat’s whole life has been governed by struggle and a cause … [F]or him to end the conflict is to end himself…. Barak was able to reposition Israel internationally. Israel was seen as having demonstrated unmistakably it wanted peace, and the reason it [peace] wasn’t … achievable was because Arafat wouldn’t accept.”
In February 2004, Malley testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and recommended that the Arab-Israeli “Road Map for Peace” be abandoned because neither side had confidence that the other was bargaining in good faith. As Ed Lasky writes, “[Malley] advocated that a comprehensive settlement plan be imposed on the parties with the backing of the international community, including Arab and Moslem states. He anticipated that Israel would object with ‘cries of unfair treatment’ but counseled the plan be put in place regardless of such objections; he also suggested that waiting for a ‘reliable Palestinian partner’ was unnecessary.”
In July 2006 Malley criticized the U.S. for allegedly remaining “on the sidelines” and being a “no-show” in the overall effort to bring peace to the nations of the Middle East. Exhorting the Bush administration to change its policy of refusing to engage diplomatically with terrorists and their sponsoring states, Malley stated: “Today the U.S. does not talk to Iran, Syria, Hamas, the elected Palestinian government or Hizballah…. The result has been a policy with all the appeal of a moral principle and all the effectiveness of a tired harangue.”
In January 2008, Ed Lasky observed that Malley’s overarching political objectives included “a radical reshaping of decades of American foreign policy and a shredding of the role of morality in the formulation of American policy.” “These policies,” said Lasky, “would strengthen our enemies, empower dictatorships, and harm our allies.”
That same month, one U.S. security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that Malley “has expressed sympathy to Hamas and Hezbollah and [has] offered accounts of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that don’t jibe with the facts.”
At that time, Malley was the Middle East and North Africa Program Director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), which receives funding from the Open Society Institute (whose founder, George Soros, serves on the ICG Board and Executive Committee). In his capacity with ICG, Malley directed a number of analysts based in Amman, Cairo, Beirut, Tel Aviv, and Baghdad. These analysts reported periodically on the political, social and economic factors which they believed had the potential to spark conflict in those regions, and they made policy recommendations in an effort to defuse such threats. Covering events from from Iran to Morocco, Malley’s team focused most heavily on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the political and military developments in Iraq, and Islamist movements across the Middle East.
On May 9, 2008, the Barack Obama presidential campaign was forced to sever its ties with Malley after the latter told the Times of London that he had been in regular contact with Hamas as part of his work for ICG.
On November 5, 2008, Middle East Newsline reported that Obama “had sent senior foreign-policy advisor Robert Malley to Egypt and Syria over the last few weeks to outline the Democratic candidate’s policy on the Middle East.” The report added that Malley had “relayed a pledge from Obama that the United States would seek to enhance relations with Cairo as well as reconcile with Damascus.” “The tenor of the messages was that the Obama administration would take into greater account Egyptian and Syrian interests,” said an aide to Malley.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 2010, Malley called for the U.S. “to unveil a set of parameters” that included the creation of a Palestinian state along the “1967 borders,” which would have been a suicidal move for Israel. He also advocated the deployment of third-party armed forces in Judea-Samaria, and the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of Jews from their homes in that region. And he said that Israel should relinquish control of the Golan Heights to Syria, on the premise that Syria was “unlikely to sponsor militant groups … [or] destabilize the region … once an agreement has been reached.”
After President Obama’s 2012 reelection, he appointed Malley to serve as his senior advisor for Iraq-Iran-Syria and the Gulf states. Obama pledged, however, that Malley would have no involvement in issues related to Israel and the Palestinians.
On February 18, 2014, it was announced that Malley was formally returning to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council (NSC), where he would be in charge of managing relations between the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf. In March 2015, Obama appointed Malley to direct the NSC’s policy in relation to the entire Middle East, including Israel. In November 2015, Malley was named as President Obama’s senior advisor for America’s counter-ISIS campaign.
In January 2020, Malley condemned the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) terrorist leader Qassem Soleimani, who was actively planning additional attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East. Malley claimed that the killing of Soleimani made it “more likely” that global tensions would eventually “drag the country into another Middle East war.”
In November 2020, Malley condemned the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a designated Iranian terrorist and a leading IRGC nuclear scientist, on grounds that his assassination would “make it all the more difficult for [President Trump’s] successor to resume diplomacy with Iran.”