It’s Almost Official: Dennis Ross, Redux

Friday, January 9th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Now that the incoming Barack Obama administration is fleshing out its ranks, talk is hot and heavy about who will handle key Middle East portfolios. And the results are certain to be controversial in a pro-Israel community that is more divided than ever on the best route to peace in the region.

This week there were strong indications Dennis Ross, who served as top Mideast negotiator during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is in line for a key Mideast role, possibly as a kind of Mideast policy czar who will focus mostly on Iran but also oversee other envoys working on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The  strongest indication: the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Ross is a senior fellow, sent out a note to its board about his impending appointment.

When it’s officially announced, Ross’ appointment will generate a lot of noise from the Jewish right and left, but mostly approval from groups in the center. 

With his decades of experience in Mideast peacemaking and his connection to landmark events like the Madrid peace conference, the Oslo signing and the 2000 Camp David talks, Ross has become a kind of bellwether for different factions in the Jewish world.

Groups that favor a much more active US role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking are wary of Ross,  seen by some as moving to the right since his  last stint as special negotiator. What galls many: his association with the Washington Institute,  a pro-Israel think tank created by AIPAC.

Groups on the hard left will see his appointment as a signal of Mideast business as usual, despite Obama’s promise of change.

Look for even more anger from the right.

 Ross, to them, is the very personification of land-for-peace negotiations they despise. In 2002, the Zionist Organization of America wrote that Ross’ “vision of peace rests on pressuring Israel.”

Ross  they argue, was a key architect of policies that pushed Israel into dangerous agreements, and if he lands in the Obama administration, it will signal much more aggressive U.S. peacemaking and new pressure on Israel on issues such as settlements.

But the pro-Israel center – including moderate doves and moderate hawks – will likely welcome the appointment of Ross, a familiar figure with close ties to the community leaders.

Asked about Ross this week, a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist had this to say: “He’s a pragmatist and a centrist. He knows the issues better than almost anybody and he knows all the major actors.  It would be hard to find anybody with diplomatic credibility who understands Israel’s security needs better than Dennis, or who understands the complexity of the Iran situation.”

On the Israel-Palestinian front, Ross has made it clear he remains committed to a two-state solution, but also that conditions since the failed 2000 Camp David talks have changed for the worse, necessitating new approaches.

JTA reported that Ross spoke at a Washington area synagogue on Monday and called for a Gaza cease fire – but only if Hamas is not “left with the capability to rearm.”

So look for a lot of noise from the Jewish margins when the Ross appointment is announced —  and possibly a big sigh of relief from the pro-Israel center.

But while Ross may wield great influence with the new administration,  key questions about changes in U.S. policy in region reside with Obama himself.  And despite the President-elect’s promise to more fully engage from the opening days of his administration, details about what that might entail have been sparse.  Will his administration push for quick progress on a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians? Or will it focus on incremental improvements in the situation until the chances for a broader agreement look better?

What impact will the ongoing Gaza conflict have on administration plans for the region?  And will it seek to open low-level contacts with Hamas, as several European media outlets reported this week?

Also unresolved: the expected appointment of another special envoy, who is expected to report to Ross, to deal specifically with Israeli-Palestinian issues. The likeliest choice: former State Department official and ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer – who enjoys warm relations with many centrist Jewish leaders but is reviled by groups like ZOA.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.