Dennis Ross’ legacy: Iran isolated, but peace still missing


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Dennis Ross got back in the driver’s seat, yet three years later the peace is still missing.

Ross, a veteran of four failed presidential pushes for Middle East peace, announced Nov. 10 that he would be leaving his post as President Obama’s top Middle East strategist by the end of the year and rejoining the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ross leaves with a mixed record in the two areas in which he was most focused: Iran’s nuclear program and advancing Israeli-Arab peace. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is stalled, if not sliding backward with the Palestinian statehood campaign and the absence of negotiations. At the same time, the Obama administration has persuaded reluctant nations to sign on to enhanced Iran sanctions.

Ross’ return to the Middle East fray, when candidate Obama tapped him to be a top campaign adviser in the summer of 2008, seemed extraordinary for a man whose comprehensive 2004 tome on his earlier efforts, “The Missing Peace,” focused mainly on his disappointments with a peace process beset by seemingly intractable challenges.

Yet by 2009, Ross was guiding not only the latest iteration of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, he was helping to shape the Obama administration’s policy of building international support for isolating Iran.

Ross “has played a critical role in our efforts to apply unprecedented pressure on the Iranian government, support democratic transitions in the region, and deepen our security relationship with Israel while pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said in a statement on Ross’ planned departure.

Both Ross and the White House cited his desire to spend more time with his family as the reason.

“When Dennis originally joined the Administration, he made it clear that given commitments to his family, he would remain for only two years,” Carney said. “In light of the developments in the broader Middle East, the President appreciates his extending that by nearly a year and looks forward to being able to draw on his council periodically going forward.”

Ross in his own statement said his return to “private life” came with mixed feelings.

“Obviously there is still work to do, but I promised my wife I would return to government for only two years and we both agreed it is time to act on my promise,” he said.

The twin challenges of Iran and Arab-Israeli peace finally took their toll, say those who know Ross, but the bromides about family appear to be true. Weeks before the announcement, acquaintances say, Ross was displaying an unusual curiosity about other people’s grandchildren as a pretext for describing the joys of his own recent assumption of the title “grandfather.”

“What you see is what you get,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who for years worked alongside Ross as a Middle East negotiator. “After 2 1/2 years and an enormous amount of work with all kinds of family considerations to boot, Dennis probably reached the conclusion that enough is enough.”

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director who was at the luncheon at which Ross announced his departure, said that above all Ross was tired.

“It was wear and tear,” he said.

The likelihood that Ross, 62, quit simply because he was exhausted didn’t stop the cries of speculative vindication emerging from commentators on the left and the right.

The narrative on the right has been that Ross has served as Obama’s “beard,” making policies that conservatives have deemed hostile to Israel more palatable for the president’s Jewish supporters.

“Now that facade will be removed, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Ross tired of that role and tired of defending a president whose feelings about Israel were as cold as Ross’s are warm,” Elliott Abrams, who served as a deputy national security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush, told a Washington Post blogger. “This is going to hurt the White House in the Jewish community because they have no substitute for Ross and no one with his credibility with most Jewish organizations.”

In fact, Ross chafed at the notion that he was fronting for Obama and has been known to snap — publicly and privately — at anyone who suggested it. He has defended the president as genuinely committed to achieving a peace that guarantees Israel’s security and to containing Iran.

“For President Obama, our commitment to Israel’s security is not an empty slogan,” Ross told the ADL in May 2010. “It is real, it serves the cause of peace and stability in the region, and it is something that is unshakable.”

On the left, a common complaint has been that Ross, who out of government has not been shy about his pro-Israel proclivities, was a force who frustrated what might otherwise have been Obama’s even-handedness.

“From my own experiences in the West Bank, talking to Palestinian leaders and negotiators, he has the trust of many in the Israeli leadership, but it’s the inverse with Palestinians, with Arabs and with” Middle East policy analysts in Washington, said Matthew Duss, who directs the Middle East program at the Center for American Progress.

The notion that Ross pulled Obama toward Israel gets the relationship backwards, said Miller, explaining that presidents set policy and staffers carry it out.

“The president is his own best or worst adviser,” he said.

Ross, who embraced observant Judaism in adulthood, has gravitated toward the pro-Israel community.

The Washington Institute, which he directed in the mid-2000s, shares board members with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. And Ross notably announced his departure to a Washington meeting of board members of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank launched by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Ross had served as the think tank’s chairman from its founding until he stepped down to join the Obama administration.

In a rare statement, AIPAC praised Ross’ service.

“In his tireless pursuit of Middle East peace, Ambassador Ross has maintained a deep understanding of the strategic value of the U.S.-Israel relationship and has worked vigorously to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” the organization said.

Yet Ross also bucks the conventions of Washington’s pro-Israel community. He led a counterattack in 2008 on critics of Robert Malley, a former Clinton administration colleague who angered some pro-Israel activists by suggesting engagement with Hamas and arguing that Israel bore significant responsibility for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit. Ross also caught flak from some Washington Institute board members in 2003 for hosting a delegation of Fatah officials as tensions unleashed by the second intifada continued to run high.

Ross’ relationship with Israel and its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was complex. Throughout his career — launched as a midlevel negotiator in the Reagan administration — Ross has advised his superiors to be sensitive to Israel’s security anxieties and go the extra mile to assure its leaders of American support. Ross, insiders say, was especially reluctant in recent years to criticize Israel for its building in eastern Jerusalem, telling colleagues that pressure on the matter would scare Israelis away from making other concessions.

On the other hand, Ross never made any secret of his distaste for Netanyahu. “The Missing Peace” depicts Netanyahu, in his first term from 1996 to 1999, as an oafish, hubristic ditherer and a prevaricator prone to offend a president in Bill Clinton who otherwise was enamored of Israel.

Ross in the book describes the aftermath of Clinton storming out of a room after Netanyahu casually suggested to Yasser Arafat that he assassinate an inconvenient Palestinian associate. Netanyahu, Ross recalls, “was sitting alone, obviously stunned, and feeling he was the victim, asking me, ‘Why is Israel treated this way, why am I treated this way? What have I done to deserve this?’ (I was struck by his belief that he and Israel were one and the same, and that he was the innocent victim of mistreatment.)”

And though Ross was at times perceived by some Obama administration colleagues to be protecting Netanyahu, he also could lash out. Insiders say Ross was furious at the Netanyahu government over an Israeli announcement of new building in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit by Vice President Joe Biden in May 2010. They say Ross’ anger over the embarrassment of the vice president helped fuel the Obama administration’s fiery backlash.

Ross’ frustration on such occasions was borne from his view that advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace would help build a coalition against Iran to force it stand to down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“One way that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” he told the ADL in 2010.

While the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seems as moribund as when Ross last left it in 2000, Iran’s isolation might be counted as Ross’ success. International sanctions are tighter than ever, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, leaked a report last week making its strongest case ever that Iran is likely building a nuclear weapons capability.

The White House’s effort to persuade IAEA member nations of Iran’s dangers was, in part, behind its shift in tone from previously cautious statements.

“His legacy is going to be the unprecedented sanctions the United States imposed on Iran, which he worked tirelessly on,” Alan Solow, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a prominent Obama backer, told JTA.

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