Friday, October 31, 2008

What Role for Dennis Ross in the Obama Administration

Just got an email from an Israeli American friend telling me that he voted, much to my surprise, for Obama. It seems that my friend, an old-fashioned centrist Zionist, the sort who thinks that Ehud Barak made the Palestinians a generous offer at Camp David, decided to bite the bullet. The main reason (aside from the fact that he is a Democrat and scared to death of Sarah Palin)? Well, he is comfortable with Dennis Ross, and Dennis Ross has emerged as Obama's Middle East Advisor.

Is this so?

There is some evidence supporting the claim. Over the course of this campaign, Rob Malley was the first to leave the public eye, followed by Dan Kurtzer, with only Ross left. Obama has touted Ross to Jewish leaders as his middle east advisor. Ross gave an interview to Haaretz last week (with the extraordinary speculation that he may be Secretary of State. I heard him on DC radio twice introduced twice as Obama's "Foreign Policy advisor." Say, it ain't so, 'O'!)

Is Dennis Ross out there just to get votes from Jews like my Israeli American friend? Or does Obama have a central role for him in the new administration.

I don't know whether even Obama knows the answer to that last question for sure. He is totally focused on winning now. Last night, there was a very revealing exchange in Rachel Maddow's interview with Obama:

MADDOW: And so, you have the opportunity to say John McCain, George Bush, you're wrong. You also have the opportunity to say, conservatism has been bad for America. But, you haven't gone there either.

OBAMA: I tell you what though, Rachel. You notice, I think we're winning right now so

Maddow, the leftwing liberal, wanted to get an ideological criticism of Republicanism and Conservatism out of Obama's mouth. She wanted the guy with the most liberal voting record in Congress to stand up and say, "I am a proud liberal." But Obama won't do it. He says that he wants to transcend ideologies and partisanship. But he also says that the American people don't like that sort of politics. And that he is winning with this strategy.

Is it just a strategy? Who knows? But I, for one, will be very surprised if Dennis Ross returns to the Israel-Palestinian negotiations. For all I know, Ross isn't himself interested. But let's face it -- he has burned himself with his post-Camp David behavior and writing. Ross is a very proud liberal Zionist -- the last person one wants to negotiate an Israel-Palestinian deal. He was a mistake from the beginning, but the mistake got worse and worse. I have blogged here before about how the only person who could represent the Palestinian point of view at Camp David was the Arabic interpreter. Obama -- and his advisors -- are too smart, I hope, to repeat that mistake.

So does Akiva Eldar, who wrote in Haaretz a few days ago:
The change also must be seen in the makeup of the American team helping to formulate the peace agreements and in an assertive enforcement of old commitments. The recycling of advisers like Dennis Ross is more of the same. His deputy, Aaron Miller, wrote in his most recent book that Ross (recently the president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute) complained that the Israelis see him as the Palestinians' defense attorney. According to Miller, none of the high-ranking American officials who dealt with negotiations has been willing or able to present the Palestinian perspective, much less fight for it
So I think that Ross will have a role in the Obama administration. But if I were Obama, I wouldn't put him anywhere near Israel, or even Iran. Ross has a top-notch mind, and his grasp of details is extraordinary. How can Obama fail to be impressed with him? I sure as heck am.

But keep Ross away from Israel. We don't need any more fashlas like Camp David. And we don't need any more liberal Zionists representing the United States of America in Middle East peace talks.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jerry,

I have heard about you from reading Richard Silverstein's blog. I think that you are on to something with this Ross post. My sources tell me that Ross is angling for the Iran portfolio. In my mind this is not good news.

Here is an article I recently wrote about Dennis Ross and Iran. I hope you will find it relevant.

Here is a mp4 of the lecture. My question starts at about the 48 minute mark.

Scroll down to Ambassador Dennis Ross speaks as part of CJU Lecture Series.


Ira Glunts

Anonymous said...

Dear Jerry,

Please! Obama does NOT have the most liberal voting record of any Democrat. He is actually quite centrist when compared to Feingold, Frank, etc.

I am voting for Obama, but we should not be hopeful at all about any substantive change in Mideast policy under his administration, as his embrace of Ross makes all too clear. I have to say your post is kind of head-spinning, unlike all your others. We just can't spin this, no matter how hard we try or wish it were true.

Best to you.

Anonymous said...

Why do think no one is representing the Palestinian viewpoint? You know very well that the Palestinians have made their terms very clear, and they are not up for negotiations....withdrawal to the pre-67 lines and acceptance of the Palestinian Right of Return with the implementation suject to acceptance by BOTH sides, meaning the Palestinians will insist on their interpretation of it and will not compromise on it. Arafat said "NO" to every compromise proposal. So the role of the US is to lean on Israel enough to get it to capitulate to the Palestinian terms. This is the bottom line. Otherwise there is no deal. Now, you may fear that some Israelis will say "better no deal that this capitulation". Do you believe this is what Ross was saying? Do you believe that Obama will accept the Palestinian terms only if there is some "pro-Palestinian" advocate? Like all you progressives keep saying "everyone knows the terms of an agreement" and Obama knows what it is, so what difference does it make who is advising Obama?

I should point out that when what you call "Liberal Zionists" like Bernard Avishai and the columnists in Ha'aretz say "everyone knows what the terms of the final settlement", they assume [wrongly] that the Palestinians will agree to a "reasonable number" of refugees or that Israel will maintain control of the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, but they have never agreed to any such thing-Yossi Alpher wrote this a couple of weeks ago. So your hopes for Obama must boil down to him somehow forcing Israel to give what the Palestinians want. Do you believe he can do it? I don't, so that is why I am confident there will be no Palestinian state at the end of Obama's term in 4 or 8 years.

Jerry Haber said...


You are right on all points. Well, I don't know about the head-spinning, but if you mean that I am, against all evidence, trying to read a favorable spin on the Ross appearances, you are right.

I was, I believe, one of the first to write last year that Obama's Middle East policy will disappoint, and so I am supporting him for other reasons. On the other hand, since I see no way out of the Israel-Palestine mess, even a little lessening of the suffering, and a little happiness for the Palestinians, is nothing to sneer at. And we may see that, especially, as I will write soon, if Bibi is elected.

Jerry Haber said...

y ben david,

i was referring to Aaron Miller's book, where one of Ross's associates (Rob Malley, without attribution) said that nobody on the US team was a Palestinian or an Arab, or an American Palestinian, that could represent their viewpoint during discussions among the team except the interpreter. Everybody, for example, knew the historical attachment of the Jews to har-habayit, because Ross, Malley, and Miller are all Jews -- but they were unclear about what the nature of the attachment was for Muslims. And so they had to ask their Arab interpreter.

Y. ben David, get this. A full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, including all of East Jerusalem, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and the resettlement of, say, half a million refugees, would be, if the Palestinians accepted it, an ENORMOUS COMPROMISE. Because they would be ceding 77% of Palestinian territory, including the coastline regions, to a state founded by Eastern Europeans in what would have been, in the normal course of things, a Palestinian state, alongside all the other post-colonial states in the Middle East.

The compromise begins from the status quo ante bellum in 1947. Isn't that obvious?

But all this is silly, because the Israelis are unable to go anywhere near such a compromise. They can't even remove what they consider to be illegal outposts. And the liberal Zionists, the so-called Zionist left, are slowly but surely beginning to realize this.

It is too late for any two state solution. You and I are in agreement on this one.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand what it was that the Americans didn't understand about the "Muslim attachment" to the Har HaBayit (they would be very upset if we were to call it that to their faces since they maintain that the Jewish claim about that being the site of the Holy Temples is a fraud). They certainly know about the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock being there. I (as a right-wing Orthodox/religious pro-YESHA Jew) know it is a Muslim "Holy Place" and were I put in charge of it, I would let them continue praying there, I would just make arrangements for Jews to pray there as well, so if I know it, Clinton, Ross and the others would know it as well. In fact, I would say it is the opposite problem...non-Orthodox Jews like Ross don't know much about the Temple Mount and know little about the importance of the sacfificial system in Judaism. Don't forget that Barak agreed to cede sovereignity to the Palestinians there, only demanding that they not dig down under it, and agree to a clause in the agreement saying that the Jews, although giving up control of the site, still view it as a holy place (the supposed recognition of "underground" Jewish sovereignity on the site which is meaningless, because once they violated that, the Israeli gov't would say "what, you want to go to war over a violation of the agreement like that?". Yet Arafat refused even to agree to those terms.
The problem is not "lack of empathy" for the Palestinians. They and their backers are pouring huge amounts of money into the pockets of various American polticians (Bush I, Colin Powell, Jimmy Carter, Clinton, Gore and many others too numerous to mention). In spite of the myths the "progressives" are always spreading about a nefarious "neo-con, Likudnik" conspiracy to subvert the American political system to a suicidal pro-Israeli policy, the Arabs have plenty of advocates on their side.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for coming off too harsh, Jerry (way too many alcohol-soaked parties in my neighborhood this week until Tuesday, between the Phillies winning the world series, Halloween, and the election of our first African American president and the impending implosion of the Republican Party, in its current form, on Tuesday! Well, at least one can hope.).

I was just a little surprised by your trying to put a somewhat positive spin on Dennis Ross's role in the campaign. I know it is so hard to see any ray of hope in all of this, but I am really anxious to see your take on what is going to happen if Bibi is elected, since you hint here that it will have a positive outcome for the Palestinians. Interesting...

Thank you for your blog, and your infinite patience with Mr ben David.

Anonymous said...

As an American and a Zionist Jew, I ask YOU, "Why do YOU even listen to these American Jews for advice on peace in Israel?" First off, Americans no longer understand peace, if WE ever did. Their advice is BAD. Second, WE in the US are paying YOU, Israel to make war on the Palestinian and have since the 40s, and WE arm the Palestinians also. OUR American money is tainted with the blood of the innocent. How will this bring YOU peace?---Mike Meyer

Jerry Haber said...

Y Ben David,

It is not a matter of empathy. The point was that not a single expert on Islam was on the Ross peace process team. True, there were no experts on traditional Judaism either. The specific point in question was how the Muslim world would react to the proposal of shared sovereignty -- Muslims on top, Jews underneath. Frankly, the importance of har ha-bayit as the site of the future Temple, and indeed, the sensitivities of rightwing nationalist Jews who hope for such an event, were ignored ENTIRELY. and for an obvious reason. There are not more than a few hundred, or a thousands, of Jews who care. As opposed to a few hundred million Muslims, who care on their side. So while Jewish sensitivities about sovereigny over the Kotel were taken into account, sensitivities of a small number of Jews over Har ha-Bayit were not.

Jerry Haber said...

kathy, as soon as Obama is elected, well, as soon as I have some time, I will give my reasons for my "endorsement" in the upcoming Israeli elections.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jerry,

It is 1:30am here in Philly, and in my very diverse neighborhood of West Philly people are still yelling and beeping car horns, and we are all pretty inebriated right now. I am very proud of my state right now. Just thought I would give you an update. Can't wait to hear your take on the election.