Dennis Ross is about to give his first post-Obama administration talk at his old/new home, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The joint is packed: Left to right spectrum of the American Jewish world. ZOA as we speak is chatting with APN. Lotsa diplos, journos — the usual WINEP crowd and then some.
Here’s the livestream, for those who would prefer to do without my filter.
Rob Satloff, WINEP director, calls Ross a "human repository of knowledge about the Middle East."
Notes that Ross ends government work as he began it in 1986 under Reagan — top NSC Middle East peace official.
Ross notes he is speaking 4 days shy of anniversary of Tunisian self-immolation that launched Arab Spring — if he had predicted the outcomes "you would have looked at me and asked me what I was smoking." Among them, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya revolutions, Arab League is sanctioning Syria.
Iran-nuclear, Israel-Palestinian still important but there is an "entirely new frame of reference." How does that relate to Iran? To I-P peace?
How did we not predict this? Ross met with ME dissidents five weeks before Tunisia outbreak, not even they predicted it, although they had the greatest stake.
"How deeply embedded were the set of assumptions that change would come but it wouldn’t come soon."
What were the assumptions?
— The omnipresent and brutal security apparatuses were "vital," not challengeable.
–Leaders would do anything to say in power.
–Publics were "passive" and "hopeless."
–Leaders were able to divert attention by making US, Israel the focal point.
So why didn’t he assumptions hold?
–The social media revolution, made people aware of the rest of the world, aware of each other’s inclinations.
–The "youth bulge" helped accelerate a decline of fear.
–In Egypt and Tunisia, institutions that protected the regime preferred to protect themselves.
The Islamists had a built in advantage (which is why they have emerged as the most potent politically); Even the dictators couldn’t take on the mosques.
Secularists lacked a formal agenda, the ability to mobilize.
How to approach the situation: Maintain humility because "we didn’t create it," "it didn’t come from without, it came from within."
Which is not to say US does not have a big stake: Threat of terrorism, to stability, and flow of oil.
"We have to think about how to try and effect what’s going on even as we recognize our limitations."
Another guidepost: "Expectations in this part of the wotld are quite hight." Publics now see themselves as "having a voice," "as citizens not as subjects." They want accountability.
"Here is where it’s important for us to keep very focused on principles and stanadrads.
"We ought to be emphasizing accountability:" Freedom to organize, rights for women, rule of law, property laws, "emphasizing principles that are important to us, politically and economically.’
But "We don’t have that much credibility" and "we’re not seen as being that relevant."
Establish "standards of accountability," noting recent transitions in eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary) and elsewhere (Indonesia.)
"We need to engage with new forces with our eyes open."
On Islamists: Dismisses those who beleve they are "closet democrats." "I would not be so quick to dismiss their ideology."
Having said that "not all Islamists are the same." The Muslim Brotherhood is not necessarily the Brothehood it once was; It shifts by region, demographics, generationally.
Additionally, Islamists may understand that there is a new reality; the Islamists of a year ago who might have planned to rule autocratically will now "have to deliver jobs, housing, a sense of possibility in the future."
There is a risk: They might control means of coercion. :"It is in our interest to preserve a countering voice."
If these governments are going to deliver, they will need outside help. For West to provide "reassurances" of assistance, the new governments will have to provide "behavior" and accountability.
We (US/West) ‘have to be clear about our messages:"
–If they cross red lines "they are not going to have the same kind of relationship."
There needs to be a balance between seeking accountability and dictating terms.
From Egyptians and other "we’ll expect a certain kind of behavior toward Iran and peace."
Iran cannot credibly claim support for "what is being thrown off" because it backs Syria, the epitome of "what is being thrown off."
Iran (and Hezbollah) are more isolated than ever.
We are seeing the most serious internal struggle for power in Iran, and part of the reason is economic pressure. Notes Iranian statements acknowledging effects of sanctions.
"Their position is a good deal weaker than it was."
That’s true, but what’s also true "is that their nuclear program continues."
"The objective has to be preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
"It’s not about containment, it’s about prevention."
Peace: "There is a huge gap psychologically and that gap is far greater than the gap substantively."
His thrust: Negotiations are not on for now, but the terms that can create them must be cultivated.
Polls show similar numbers on both sides (70 percent) accept parameters for peace, yet believe it is unachievable.
Mahmoud Abbas believes Netanyahu won’t make a deal, Netanyahu sees Abbas as creating new conditions.
What happens after Palestinian elections planned in May? It’s important to validate a Palestinian leadership that believes in nonviolence and negotiations (as Abbas and Salam Fayyad do.)
Validate what Fayyad is trying to do (building institutions.)
The way to do that is to demonstrate occupation is receding.
How: –Increase Palestinian police presence in area B.
–Allow Palestinians to have access economically in area C. "This will demonstrate something is changing in the occupation."
The approach by "many in israel" to "wait (for the Arab changes to play out) and let things clarify (before moving on the Palestinian front)" will mean "your options shrink." (This is a dig at Bibi Netanyahu, if I’m not mistaken.)
New Arab leaderships should not regard Israel "as a source of injustice."
Receding occupation "will affect Israel’s relationships in the region over time."
Satloff: How do "Arab Spring" changes affect US-Israel, US-Saudi relationships?
Ross: "Both leaderships came to realize was that this was not something the United States could have prevented." (Alludes to initial Saudi and Israeli frustration with US for not intervening to save Egypt’s Mubarak.)
"In terms of the US and Isael today, the security relationship has never been as strong as it is. Not just in terms of s ecurity assiatnce but in terms of the whole array of relationship, discussions of national security issues."
With Saudis, and Gulf Council states, "security coordination" air defense, missile defense, maritime defense, early warning, level of cooperation is "unprecedented."
"The infrastruicture of those relationships" is stronger than ever (US-Israel, US-Saudi.)
There are differences, but there always will be differences.
"The fundamentals are solid."
Satloff again: What about Iran being "existential" problem for Israel, but not for US, however critical a problem it is? And why don’t people believe Obama is serious about preventing Iran from getting nukes?
"It is from, from the Israeli standpoint, Iran with nuclar weapons is an existential threat" and to the States the threat is not existential, but it is a threat to US "vital security interests."
The most profound danger of a nuclear Iran: "Let’s assume that Iran has nuclear weapons, and we have a Middle East where Israel and others are looking at Iran with nuclear weapons. You are not going to have a stable situation where anyone can feel that they are going to wait. If there is the slightest indication that Iran is changing its readiness, can Israel wait?"
This is not a Cold War situation — unlike Soviets-US, Iran and israel do not communicate.
"The potential for miscalculation would be enormous.
"If Iran has nuclear weapons the potential for nuclear war in the Middle East goes up dramatically."
On Obama’s credibility: "The administration prides itself on a certain reality that it does what it says." From day one, Obama wanted to get Osama bin Laden, "and he does what he says."
"When he says all options remain on the table, it doesn’t mean that force is his first choice, but it means that that’s an option that he intends to exercise."
"There is time and space available for the administration to achieve its objectives."
Dan Raviv, CBS: Were there differences between you and others on these issues? Is that why you left? And does the administration just want to prevent nuclear, or would it go further (regime change)?
Said Erekat, Al Quds: where does blame lie on peace process, and when does 2 state option lapse?
Ross to Raviv: "I left because I had promised my wife as a condition for going back … that i would go in for two years. She tolerated a third year. There was no other reason." There are always goin to be disagreements in administrations.
On Iran, regime change: "First thing’s first. The goal at least as it relates in the near term is to change behavior" on nuclear.
To Erekat: "There isn’t an alternative" to two states. "These are two separate peoples" "with strong national identities. "Anything else "is an illusion." One state is a "prescription for ongoing conflict."
I ask: Why were his proposals for Israel to create a better situation on the ground in the West Bank so small bore? (Extra police, more economic access.) Why not something grander?
Bloomberg: What does he think of the Iran sanctions legislation (I’m presuming the effort to sanction Central Bank?) What about covert options?
Third question: What do you think GOP debates on Israel are doing for US image in the Middle East?
First on GOP, and a dig at Newt Gingrich: "The Palestinian people exist because they have a very strong identity. I don’t think you;re going to make progress in trying to transform the region if you ignore realities.
"Discussions ought to take place at a level that reflects what’s going on in the region."
On covert operations: The question is "What’s the best mix of options you can pursue."
On sanctions: "How do you maximize the pressure? If the US is acting alone you’re less likely to have the kind of impact that (you have) if you bring others along."
Existing pressure is "being felt" although more has to be done."There is a way to motivate others to do more" re: Central Bank. (This is a subtle dig at those in Congress who are more or less pressing the US to lead the way on cutting off the Central bank.)
On my "small bore" question, relating to his proposal that Israel show the PA good will by allowing greater access to area C and allowing the PA to up the number of cops in area B.
"I’m not suggesting that’s the sum total of what they can do.
"You cannot give up the poltiical horizon, you have to pursue negotiations.
"The Quartet timeline (90 days for both sides to have proposal on the table) is a good way to go."
"You have to focus on what you can do. It is very important to validate those Palestinians who believe in nonviolence.
"That’s not the whole menu of steps to be taken. That is one element of an approach.
"To think that now’s the time for a grand gesture ignores the reality" of the psychological gap.
Okay, my spin: Expecting a freeze in settlements is a bridge to far. Small bore is a good way to build trust though.
Ross on a question on whether to dump "friendly dictators." "There has to be enough consistency at least in terms of our values and principles, that our own credibility (in the Middle East) takes on greater weight."
Syria: "There is no doubt that for the Iranians this is huge. They are investing a huge amount in trying to preserve the Assad regime." Libya approach v. Syria approach: "Force is a last resort" but "what more can be done to elevate the opposition?" Those sitting on the fence will "look for the indicators." There wil be an effect to the "emergence" of a "certainty" of regime change in Syria.
Obama visit to Israel: "There are a lot of presdients that didn’t go to Israel in his first term." Reagan didn’t go at all, GWBush went in 8th year.
"You make a judgment as to when you go what can be achieved in such a trip."
(This ignores salient issue: Obama did go to Cairo to address Muslim world. Israel was a 40 minute flight away.)
Turkey as a model for emerging democracies: It’s seen by many of the rregion (economy, blending Islam and democracy) as being an attractive model. But no model translates exactly.
Israeli-US timeline on Iran: Israel’s likely see danger as coming sooner, but overall, there is Israel-US agreement on urgency of preventing Iranian nukes.
Oil diplomacy: Through Libyan, Iraqi oil coming back to market, could help dampen a spike in prices as less oil is purchased by Iran.
Gilad Shalit releae: "There’s no question it strengthened Hamas" although that wasn’t the intent; still it underscores need to validate those who advocate nonviolence. (Abbas/Fayyad.)