Thursday, July 30, 2009

Betting on Dennis Ross

Daniel Mandel
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is Obama's "Special Assistant" really a friend of Israel?
One of the small, but interesting, indeed significant, things to have emerged from the Alan Dershowitz – Melanie Phillips FrontPage Magazine debate over the Obama Administration’s policies towards Israel is the manner in which Dershowitz seeks a security blanket in the existence of individual Obama Administration figures deemed pro-Israeli. Yet, his is a curious argument: it tacitly concedes that the President’s background and the record of at least some of his relevant advisers and appointees – and thus the auguries regarding the likely direction of policy under his stewardship – have indeed given reason for worry.

Consider some of these advisers and appointees: Zbigniew Brzezinski, who lauded the 2006 Mearsheimer-Walt demonization of the pro-Israel lobby – a demonization Dershowitz himself felt impelled to rebut; General Merrill ‘Tony’ McPeak, who thinks American Jewish voters prevent the U.S. playing a constructive role in bringing about peace; Robert Malley, who has urged an imposed settlement on Israel and advocated negotiations with Hamas; Samantha Power, now on the National Security Council, who has also advocated external imposition of a settlement on Israel; George Mitchell, now Special Envoy to the Middle East, whose response to the outbreak of the Palestinian terror wave in 2000 was to call for more Israeli concessions before demanding Palestinians fulfill their already existing, unfulfilled obligations under Oslo; and Daniel Kurtzer, who largely blames Israel for the 2000 Camp David negotiations failure.

Yet pro-Obama Israel supporters frequently ignore these officials’ records and point to other officials, or even the same ones, in the conviction that they are Israel’s friends or that their mere presence foreshadows cordial American-Israeli relations:

· Marc R. Stanley, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, has pointed to several advisers and appointees – Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, George Mitchell, Peter Orszag, Dennis Ross, Kathleen Sebelius and Lawrence Summers – with “long-standing close relationships with us” among reasons for Jews to feel at ease with the Obama Administration.

· The Washington Jewish Week, in an October 2008 editorial supporting Obama’s candidacy, asserted blithely, “On Israel, there is no doubt that McCain is a stalwart supporter, but Obama, too, is a strong friend. Need proof? Look at his closest Israel advisers, people like Dennis Ross, Robert Wexler and Daniel Kurtzer, who wouldn’t work so hard as his surrogates if they didn’t believe his concern for and commitment to the Jewish state were genuine and unshakable.”

Now, in FrontPage, Dershowitz has done the same thing. Scolded by Phillips for ignoring as formative influences on Barack Obama his own radical past associates deeply hostile to Israel, Dershowitz caviled, “No one who fits that characterture [sic] would have appointed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, Dennis Ross (who she also attacks) as an adviser on Iran and Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff.”

The case for skepticism regarding Clinton and Emanuel has been made by others. However, when it comes to Dennis Ross, liberal, pro-Obama Israel supporters speak as though they are on a sure thing. Before Obama’s election, the New Republic’s Marty Peretz, another liberal champion of Israel, said any misgivings he had were allayed by the presence on Obama’s team of the “clear-headed” Ross. Ross was to be found last year seeking to reassure Jews that it was kosher – indeed meritorious – to vote for Obama.

But is Ross’ own record of judgment and deeds reassuring?

In an interview with me eight years ago, Ross was candid about the mistakes President Clinton and he committed in working for an Arab-Israeli peace. He was explicit about their having fatally ignored Palestinian terror and incitement to hatred and murder:

[I] believe that we … became so preoccupied with this process that the process took on a life of its own. It had self-sustaining justification. Every time there was a [Palestinian] behavior, or an incident or an event that was inconsistent with the process … the impulse was to rationalize it, finesse it, find a way around it and not allow it to break the process.

Holding the Palestinian leadership responsible for the failure of the Oslo process, Ross concluded, “I don’t believe that one can focus now on the solution. You have to focus on management and defusing of the conflict.”

However, last year, campaigning for Obama, Ross could be found declaring that “the Bush administration walked away from peace-making for more than six years.” Apparently, what Ross told me in 2001 to be impossible he now believes should have been tried ceaselessly since about that date.

What made Ross change his mind? Apparently, the notion that, while Arafat could not make peace, Mahmoud Abbas (“whose intentions, I think, are for peace”) and his cohorts can – and will – with U.S. support. The trouble is, precisely such supportive efforts were the sum total of the Bush Administration’s approach – and it proved a failure.

The Bush Administration accepted (over strenuous Israeli objections) the Roadmap peace plan in April 2003, which ordained immediate Israeli concessions and redeployments in response to untested Palestinian reforms. It pressured Israel into concessions – like the perilous abandonment of the Gaza/Egypt border. It engaged ceaselessly with a reshuffled pack of veteran Arafat loyalists — Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, Nabil Shaath, Ahmed Qurei, with Salaam Fayyad later added to the deck — claiming these amounted to new Palestinian leadership.

This embrace of Arafat loyalists was not the result – Ross’ confidence in Abbas’ moderation notwithstanding – of the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s dismantling the apparatus of terror or the ending of the incitement to hatred and murder that feeds it. Terrorists are not jailed – in fact, Mahmoud Abbas explicitly ruled out doing that already in 2005, contrary to Oslo and the Roadmap. Glorification of terror within the PA remains the norm and Abbas himself has described wanted terrorists as “heroes,” publicly mourned dead terrorists (George Habash) and congratulated the families of living ones (Samir Kuntar) on their release by Israel.

In short, the logic of dealing with Arafat loyalists involves feigning ignorance of all this. Thus, George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice liberally showered Abbas and the PA with praise, money ($600 million of U.S. taxpayer’s money in Bush’s last year) and arms for undetectable moderation. Under Obama, all that has changed is the magnitude of the taxpayer funds remitted to the PA (some $900 million in 2009) and the volume of pressure applied to Israel to make concessions to it.

Ross served throughout the two Clinton Administrations as Middle East envoy. Where is he now? As of last month, he carries the unwieldy title of Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the “Central Region,” having been quickly shifted from the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia brief he took up only months ago within Clinton’s State Department team. Whether this move presages increased or reduced influence for Ross remains to be seen.

But even assuming that Ross occupies a position of influence and authority, the question is: will he serve as a bridle on the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed tendencies to bully Israel, as in the present fracas over Israel building homes for Jews in Jerusalem or the West Bank? His own record affords little reason to think so.

On his conduct during the Oslo years, as he conceded in 2001, Ross did not call a halt to a policy of pressure on Israel and indulgence of the PA. But his record is longer than the Oslo years.

In 1992, for example, Ross and his State Department colleagues, wishing to prevent Arafat from boycotting upcoming peace talks, persuaded the George H. W. Bush Administration to strongly condemn Israel in the U.N. for expelling a dozen Palestinian ringleaders after a series of lethal terror attacks on Israelis. Then, as later, Palestinian terrorism was insufficient grounds for upsetting diplomacy that we now know led no-where but to bloodshed. And when last year Marty Peretz took Robert Malley to task for hostility to Israel, Ross joined Sandy Berger, Dan Kurtzer, Martin Indyk, Aaron Miller and other Clinton era advisers in indignantly repudiating Peretz’s critique.

In short, Ross’ is not the record of someone who will readily oppose pressure on Israel from within the inner sanctum of an Obama Administration if these get in the way of the latest ‘peace process.’ Liberal supporters of Israel like Alan Dershowitz who bank on Dennis Ross to provide a countervailing influence within the Obama Administration should take note.
Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy, and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, 2004).

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