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.”
“Playing Into Sharon’s Hands”: In this January 2002 piece, says Lasky, Malley “absolves Arafat of the responsibility to restrain terrorists and blames Israel for terrorism. He defends Arafat and hails him as ‘… the first Palestinian leader to recognize Israel, relinquish the objective of regaining all of historic Palestine and negotiate for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 boundaries.’”
“Rebuilding a Damaged Palestine”: This May 2002 article accuses Israel’s security operations of deliberately weakening Palestinian security forces (which themselves are replete with terrorists and thus make little or no effort to prevent terrorism), and calls for international forces to keep Israel in check.
“Making the Best of Hamas’s Victory”: In this March 2006 piece, Malley recommends that nations worldwide should establish relationships with, and send financial aid to, the Palestinians’ newly elected, Hamas-led government. He also alleges that the policies of Hamas and Israel are essentially mirror images of one another. Writes Malley: “The Islamists (Hamas) ran on a campaign of effective government and promised to improve Palestinians’ lives; they cannot do that if the international community turns its back.” In Malley’s calculus, the Hamas victory was a manifestation of Palestinian “anger at years of humiliation and loss of self-respect because of Israeli settlement expansion, Arafat’s imprisonment, Israel’s incursions, Western lecturing and, most recently and tellingly, the threat of an aid cut off in the event of an Islamist success.” In addition, Malley counsels the U.S. not to “discourage third-party unofficial contacts with [Hamas] in an attempt to moderate it.”
“Avoiding Failure with Hamas”: This April 2006 article not only advocates international aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government, but also suggests that a failure to extend such aid could trigger an environmental or public health crisis for Palestinians.
“How to Curb the Tension in Gaza” (July 2006): Here, Malley and co-writer Gareth Evans condemn Israel for its military’s efforts (in 2006) to recover Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who had been kidnapped and held hostage by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. The authors classify Israel’s retaliatory actions as “collective punishment” that stands in “violation of international law.”
“Forget Pelosi: What About Syria?”: In this April 2007 piece, Malley advocates U.S. and Israeli outreach to Syria, notwithstanding the latter’s close affiliations with Hezbollah, Hamas, and al Qaeda in Iraq. He further contends that it is both unreasonable and unrealistic for Israel or Western nations to demand that Syria sever its ties with the aforementioned organizations or with Iran. Malley suggests, moreover, that if Israel were to return the Golan Heights (which it captured in the 1967 Six Day War, and again in the 1973 Yom Kippur War — two conflicts sparked by Arab aggression) to Syrian control, Damascus would, as Lasky puts it, “somehow miraculously” pursue peace — “after they get all they want.”
“Containing a Shiite Symbol of Hope”: This October 2006 article advocates U.S. engagement with the fiercely anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite leader of the Mahdi Army in Iraq.
“Middle East Triangle”: Co-written with Hussein Agha, this January 2008 piece calls for Hamas and Fatah to end their bitter disputes and to join forces in an effort to derail what the authors view as Israel’s attempt to “perpetuate Palestinian geographic and political division.” Malley and Agha predict that such a strategy would prompt Hamas to: (a) abandon its longstanding quest to destroy Israel; and (b) encourage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (a leading member of Fatah) to negotiate for a lasting peace with Israel.
“The U.S. Must Look to its Own Mideast Interests”: Co-written with Aaron David Miller, this September 2006 article urges the U.S. to engage with Syria and Hamas, rather than to “follow Israel’s lead.” Malley and Miller add: “A national unity government between Fatah and Hamas appears within reach, and the Europeans seem prepared to resume assistance to such a government once it takes shape. Should this happen, America shouldn’t stand in the way — regardless of whether Hamas recognizes Israel or formally renounces violence. Instead, the United States should see this as an opportunity to achieve what is achievable: a Palestinian cease-fire involving all armed organizations, a halt to all Israeli offensive military actions, and the resumption of normal economic life for the Palestinian government and people.”
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.
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.