Robert Malley

Robert Malley

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: International Peace Institute


* Longtime official with the International Crisis Group
* Formerly served as President Bill Clinton’s Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs
* Son of Simon Malley, a key figure in the Egyptian Communist Party
* Blamed Israel for the failed Camp David peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000
* Has co-written a number of op-ed pieces with Hussein Agha, a former adviser to Arafat
* Consistently condemns Israel, exonerates Palestinians, urges U.S. disengagement from Israel, and recommends that America reach out to negotiate with its traditional Arab enemies
* Became foreign policy advisor to presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2007
* Was named by President Biden as special U.S. envoy for Iran in 2021

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; and a beneficiary of Soviet funding. He also published a radical magazine about Africa, titled Afrique-Asie, which supported a variety of leftist “liberation movements” as well as 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.

Malley has written a number of 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 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.”

Additional noteworthy articles written by Malley include the following, as enumerated by American Thinker news editor Ed Lasky:

  • 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’ Victory”: In this February 2006 piece, Malley recommends that nations worldwide should establish relationships with, and send financial aid to, the Palestinians’ newly elected, Hamas-led government. “Without the leverage of Western funding, without the responsibility to ensure it keeps flowing, Hamas will be less constrained and freer to revert to past practice,” he warns. “An inflexible approach to the PA would carry other perils. Hamas, searching for a substitute source of funds, might turn to Iran or, convinced that it is being set up for failure, drop its political gambit and return to the familiarity of armed confrontation.” 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 suggests that a failure to extend such aid could trigger an environmental or public health crisis for Palestinians. Thus, Malley calls for a 100-day trial period “during which aid to the Palestinian Authority would be channeled through a transparent World Bank trust fund.” He also demands that Israel release tax revenues to the Palestinian government, which was headed in part by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
  • 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.”
  • A New Middle East”: In this September 2006 article, Malley contends that Hezbollah’s infamous attacks and kidnappings targeting Israelis (two months earlier) were motivated partly by that organization’s desire to liberate Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, and partly by pressure from Hezbollah’s close allies, Syria and Iran.

In February 2004, Malley testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and recommended that the Arab-Israeli “Roadmap 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,” he explained, “has been a policy with all the appeal of a moral principle and all the effectiveness of a tired harangue.”

In 2007, Malley became a foreign policy advisor to Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama.

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 has received extensive funding from the Open Society Institute (whose founder, George Soros, has served on both 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 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.

In a 2008 interview, Malley spoke sympathetically about Hamas and its agendas. Some key excerpts:

  • “It’s a mistake to only think of them in terms of their terrorist violence dimension. It has a charity organization, a social branch; it’s not something you can defeat militarily either and people need to understand that.”
  • “There’s so much misinformation about them. None of them are crazies. They may do things that we consider to belong to a different realm of rationality, but within their own system it’s often very logical.”
  • “If Hamas is not allowed to govern, if we squeeze them, and you know you may have good reason for doing that, but if you do that, we’ll tell you what the reaction will be — rockets. No doubt. And consolidation of Hamas’ power in Gaza. Both things have happened.”

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.

Malley spent time as a member of J Street‘s advisory council from at least 2008 to 2013.

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 Director for the Gulf Region and Syria. Obama pledged, however, that Malley would have no involvement in issues related to Israel and the Palestinians.

In February 2014, it was announced that Malley would become the next senior director of 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.

On September 26, 2023, reported that in early 2014, leading aides to Malley had conducted a secret campaign to improve Tehran’s public image around the world:

“In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues — particularly its nuclear program — by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative [IEI].

“The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails reported for the first time by Semafor and Iran International. The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: At least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley [who was then a senior advisor to President Obama] …

“The documents … show how Iran was capable of the kind of influence operations that the U.S. and its allies in the region often conduct….

“The IEI participants were prolific writers of op-eds and analyses, and provided insights on television and Twitter, regularly touting the need for a compromise with Tehran on the nuclear issue — a position in line with both the Obama and Rouhani administrations at the time. The emails describe the IEI being initiated following Rouhani’s 2013 election, when he was looking to find an accommodation with the West on the nuclear issue. According to the emails, Iran’s Foreign Ministry, through its in-house think tank — the Institute for Political and International Studies — reached out to ten ‘core’ members for the project, through which it planned to liaise over the next 18 months to aggressively promote the merits of a nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington, which was finalized in July 2015. […]

“The IEI quickly pushed ahead with one of the initiative’s primary objectives — publishing opinion pieces and analyses in top-tier media in the U.S. and Europe, specifically targeting policy makers.”

In March 2015, President 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-ISIL campaign in Iraq and Syria.

Malley helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 — known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and he subsequently opposed the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran.

After President Obama left office in 2017, Malley returned to the International Crisis Group, serving as its Vice President for Policy. He subsequently became the organization’s President and CEO, positions he held until January 2021.

According to a February 2021 report in The Washington Examiner, Malley in July 2019 met secretly with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an effort to: (a) undermine and sabotage the Trump Administration’s efforts to defuse tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and (b) lay the groundwork for a future relationship between Tehran and a Democratic American President. That Malley-Zarif meeting likely contributed to the failure, two months later, of a Trump attempt to open a back channel of communication with leading Iranian officials during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York City. Says the Examiner:

“The attempt at counter-diplomacy offers a window into the deep relationships Mr. Zarif forged with influential U.S. liberals over the past decade. These relationships blossomed into what high-level national security and intelligence sources say allowed the Iranian regime to bypass Mr. Trump and work directly with Obama administration veterans that Tehran  hoped would soon return to power in Washington. One of those was former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who met with Mr. Zarif during the Trump years. So did Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. They, along with Mr. Malley, were top U.S. negotiators of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

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.”

In January 2021, President Joe Biden named Malley as special U.S. envoy for Iran.

To Malley’s approval, negotiations between the U.S. and Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program began formally in April 2021. The talks were then paused, however, shortly before Iran’s presidential elections in June.

In a July 25, 2021 appearance on The Mehdi Hasan Show, Malley called for the U.S. to return immediately to the Iran nuclear deal, and to fully dismantle the sanctions that the Trump Administration had imposed on Tehran. “We said very clearly we are prepared to come back into the deal if they’re prepared to do their part,” Malley told Hasan.

During an October 13, 2021 televised talk with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Malley acknowledged that the Biden Administration had made virtually no progress in persuading Iran to return to negotiating a new agreement by which the government in Tehran would forswear further development of its nuclear weapons program. Said Malley: “We have to prepare for a world—which we’re doing now in consultation with our partners from the region—about a world where Iran doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program and we have to consider options for dealing with that, which is what we’re doing even as we hope that we can get back to the deal. Iran is giving us its answer by what it’s doing and not doing every day.”

In late November 2021, Tehran sent a new team of diplomats to Vienna to resume negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program, but they made more demands and offered fewer concessions than had their predecessors. Thus, the talks stalled on December 3. Six days later, on December 9, Malley declared: “We’re fully committed to a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We think there’s still time to do it if Iran comes back and says they’re prepared to roll up their sleeves and do it, too.”

Also on December 9, 2021, Malley stated that U.S. negotiators would be willing to sit down with their Iranian counterparts “at any time and any place” — preferably face-to-face.” Asked whether there was a possibility of military conflict between the United States and Iran, Malley answered: “We are privileging the path of diplomacy. We think it’s the best way. It’s best for us. We suspect it’s best for Iran, but Iran will have to decide.” America, he added, was “prepared to get back into the deal as soon as possible – as soon as Iran is…. Then we would lift all of the sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.”

On February 4, 2022, the Biden Administration issued a number of waivers designed to relieve the burden of the Trump-era sanctions that had been imposed on Iran. Malley, for his part, said on February 6 that he would soon return to Vienna for the next round of nuclear talks. “President Biden still wants us to negotiate in Vienna,” he explained, adding: “We’ll come back next week. That’s a symbol or a sign of our continued belief that it [the JCPOA] is not a dead corpse — that we need to revive it because it is in our interest.”

On March 27, 2022, Malley said he had little faith that the JCPOA could be revived anytime soon. “I can’t be confident it is imminent,” he lamented. “… In any negotiations, when there’s issues that remain open for so long, it tells you something about how hard it is to bridge the gap.”

On July 7, 2023, reported that according to a source within the State Department, the FBI was investigating Malley over his alleged mishandling of classified information. “Rob Malley is on [unpaid] leave and Abram Paley is serving as acting Special Envoy for Iran and leading the Department’s work in this area,” said State Department spokesperson Matt Miller. Iran International, a Persian-language television news channel headquartered in London, added: “Malley has been absent for a considerable period [on unpaid leave since June 29], prompting speculation about potential conduct-related issues, which could affect his security clearance…. [A] source familiar with the case confirmed Mr. Malley’s absence, saying, ‘He has completely vanished. No calls, no meetings.'”

Additional Resources:

Barack Obama’s Middle East Expert
By Ed Lasky
January 23, 2008

Robert Malley and U.S. Policy on Israel
By Alex Safian

The Once and Future “Clear-Eyed Expert” Robert Malley
By Hugh Fitzgerald
January 31, 2021

The Iran Nuclear Deal and Negotiator Robert Malley
By Alex Safian

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