N.B. The following post is based on conversations I have had in the last few days with folks who are close to Obama's inner circle, as well as folks who have played a role in the peace process in the past. But I am responsible for its contents.
If the main theme of the Obama campaign was "change," then the main question to be posed to the nascent Obama administration is, "Are we going going back to the Clinton era?" In recent days, Obama camp aides have floated in the media some old names as trial balloons. We should expect some of those baloons to pop. (Does anybody have a needle for the Larry Summers' balloon?)
Two prominent members of the Clinton Mideast team – Dennis Ross and Dan Kurtzer – still have seats aboard the Obama train, according to my sources. I don't know whether they have been offered specific positions, since without a Secretary of State or a National Security Advisor we are in the embryonic phase of the administration. So perhaps I should say that as things stand now, they are in. No surprise there, of course; both Kurtzer and Ross were active as Obama advisors during the campaign, although Ross was more visible, especially towards the end.
At first glance, Ross is, or should be, a persona non grata for Jewish progressives, not so much for his liberal Zionist bias, but for his petulant and tendentious criticisms of Arafat and the Palestinians after the demise of the Peace Process, and for his willingness to serve on the board of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute of the Elders of Zionism, oops, sorry, the Jewish Agency. (By the way, that's how an old family friend and former head of the Agency, Chuck Hoffberger, called it). To put a partisan Zionist like Dennis Ross in charge of the US Peace Process would make little sense, as Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar recently implied. Still, Ross's expertise, not to mention political savvy, qualifies him for occupying the liberal Zionist seat at the Obama Mideast table – provided that the seat is not located at the head of the table.
What ensures that Ross will not be running the show is the presence of Dan Kurtzer, former Ambassador to Egypt and to Israel. Kurtzer recently withdrew from being considered for the position of the Director of the new Gildenhorn Center for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland which suggested that he had bigger fish to fry, a suggestion that has been confirmed. But Kurtzer will probably not consent to serve under Dennis Ross, who, according to Aaron Miller, cut him out of the Peace Process. Kurtzer's positions are more nuanced and balanced than Ross's, though they are on the left-wing of American Zionism. Ross likes to see himself as "centrist" between the Palestinians and the hardliner Zionists, but he accepts the liberal Zionist narrative and is a fan of Ben-Gurion.
It is more likely that Ross will expand his sights to include the entire Middle East, especially Iran. That would be an even bigger pity, since Ross wants to isolate Iran in the region, though he is not entirely opposed to US carrots. Will Ross become a Super Envoy to the Middle East? Hopefully not, since that sort of diplomacy hasn't been successful in recent years. And, of course, Ross's level would almost be that of the Secretary of State. What Secretary of State would be willing to have somebody of Ross's stature around?
Indeed, the problem that Ross has, and Kurtzer doesn't, is that there are not so many positions available to him. If he isn't Secretary of State or National Security Advisor (the latter is more probable than the former), then what can he do? Kurtzer, unlike Ross, hasn't risen beyond the level of Ambassador. He certainly could be in line for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.
Who's Not In Yet
Rob Malley, the bugbear of rightwingers like Ed Laskey, not to mention some really slimey bloggers, has served in the past as an advisor to Barack Obama, and co-wrote the definitive analysis of the Camp David debacle in the New York Review of Books (The article isn't free). Malley is neither in nor out, according to my sources. Even though his name seems forever linked to Obama and Hamas, according to the rightwing rumor mongers, he did not contact Hamas recently on behalf of Obama campaign (the contacts, reported in Haaretz, were subsequently denied by Hamas) nor was he sent to Egypt and Syria on a mission from Obama, despite a bogus news release to that effect by the Middle East News Line. Apparently, the name "Malley" has become a synonym for "Haman" in some quarters; upon hearing it one mindlessly makes noise, no matter what the context or the truth of the story.
Who's Probably Out
Count out Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel, currently of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute. Indyk has completed an interesting book on the Peace Process which will be published soon, and whose conclusions may surprise those expecting more conventional finger-pointing in the conclusion. Indyk, unlike many liberal pro-Israel voices, does not want to advance Middle East peace tracks in order to isolate Iran, but rather wants to get Iran to buy in (or at least to think that she is buying in) to the process. Indyk's thinking has evolved positively over the years, in contrast to Ross's, which has essentially remained the same.
Also count out Aaron David Miller, whose memoir of the peace process is one of the most perceptive, and certainly the most entertaining and well-written. (It's a pity that it came out after Ross's book; whole forests could have been saved.) Miller is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Public Policy. I think that he has eaten too many rubber chickens and taken too many helicopter rides to be nostalgiac for the glamourous life of a Peace Process advisor.
A Washington think tank may not be as sexy as shuttle diplomacy, but it sure is better for one's social and family life.
Who's Really Out
Nowhere near Obama's Mideast team, as far as I know, is anybody who can not just understand intellectually but empathize with the struggles and suffering of the Palestinian people, say, a Palestinian American or a Palestinian academic. Look, I have the highest respect and admiration for Dan Kurtzer – frankly, he is one of the first modern orthodox Jews who make me proud to be a member of that subgroup. But he remains a modern orthodox Jew and a liberal Zionist. Why is it so "out-of-the-box" to have a "modern orthodox" Palestinian advising President Obama? In a country where "Arab" and "Palestinian" are used as ethnic slurs, wouldn't it be nice for somebody like an Abunimeh or a Khalidi, maybe somebody with foreign policy credentials, to be part of that team?
Now that would be nice – for a real change