Dennis Ross: The Undiplomatic History
The Friday resignation of chief White House adviser on the Middle East Dennis Ross drew sharply contrasting reactions that reflected the sectarian, pro-Israel agenda his presence in government represented.
AIPAC, the key arm of the Israel lobby, issued a rare statement hailing Ross’s legacy. “In his tireless pursuit of Middle East peace, Ambassador Ross has maintained a deep understanding of the strategic value of the US-Israel relationship and has worked vigorously to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Rashid Khalidi, a former negotiator for the PLO who now directs the Middle East Institute of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, had a less positive take on Ross’s legacy.
“Since the Reagan administration, Dennis Ross has played a crucial role in crafting Middle East policies that never served peace, which is today farther away than ever,” Khalidi said. “His efforts, which contributed to the growth in the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, were marked by a litany of failures. It is long overdue for him and the bankrupt policies he represents to be shown the door.”
Despite references to Ross’s pro-Israel leanings by his defenders and detractors, his full impact on the trajectory of US policy towards the Middle East in general and the Arab Israeli conflict in particular remains underrated or under-reported.
Serving in four American administrators and overseeing a long and fruitless process to secure an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ross did more than any official to advance Israeli ambitions of expansion at the cost of Palestinian pursuit of statehood and freedom.
Inside the Obama White House, Ross made little effort to conceal his pro-Israel agenda. While serving on the President’s National Security Council, Ross actively sought to obstruct the US from pressing Israel to engage in negotiations on final status issues like borders and refugees, or to apply measures to stop its construction of settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. At the same time, Ross spearheaded Washington’s effort to punish Iran for pursuing nuclear energy capacity, pushing for harsh sanctions against Iran that have proven fruitless. The New York Times described Ross simply as “Israel’s friend in the Obama White House.”
When Ross announced his resignation this week, he chose to do so before the board members of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank founded by Israel’s Jewish Agency to develop prescriptions for combating threats to “Jewish demographics” in Israel and abroad. Ross directed the think tank for several years before entering the Obama administration. By the time Ross revealed his plans to retire from government, he had already arranged for a golden parachute with one of the key arms of the Israel lobby. In December, Ross will return to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a hawkish think tank that he founded in collaboration with AIPAC. After nearly three decades of advancing Israel’s interests from the inside, Ross’s career had come full circle.
Ross was raised in a strictly secular atmosphere by a Catholic stepfather and a secular Jewish mother. Like many American Jews of his generation, Ross became religiously observant and enthusiastically Zionist following Israel’s lightning victory in the 1967 war. Ross’s first paper for WINEP, which he published in 1985, demanded the appointment of “a non-Arabist Special Middle East envoy” who would not “feel guilty about our relationship with Israel and our reluctance to force Israeli consensus.”
He gathered diplomatic experience at the failed US-brokered Madrid Summit, where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir privately revealed Israel’s intention to “drag out the talks on Palestinian self-rule for ten years while attempting to settle hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Occupied Territories.”
With the election of Democratic President Bill Clinton, Ross’s dream job finally arrived. Clinton’s presidential campaign drew momentum from the Israel lobby’s anger at President George H.W. Bush, who momentarily withheld loan guarantees to Israel to force Shamir to accept a settlement freeze. Clinton’s top individual donor was Haim Saban, an American-Israeli media tycoon committed to cementing Israeli influence over American policy. Saban raised US$3.5 million at an event he hosted for the Clinton campaign, then helped secure the appointment of WINEP co-founder Martin Indyk as US Ambassador to Israel once Clinton was elected. For his part, Ross was appointed as Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator – his “non-Arabist Special Middle East envoy.”
Ross was the most influential American figure in negotiations between Israel and Palestinian representatives during the 1990’s, arguably more powerful than even the President. As a former senior Clinton official told journalist Clayton Swisher, “Part of the problem was with people like Dennis… instead of being a broker – instead of facilitating the parties making a deal – they started doing it as if they were the principal or the President himself.”
Ross played a central role in negotiating the Oslo Accords, an agreement that postponed all major issues from borders to refugees to a later date while granting full Israeli military control over 60 percent of the West Bank, enabling Israel to transform large swathes of the occupied area into a land of settlers while strategically confining the Palestinian urban population into a series of isolated Bantustans. As new Israeli “facts on the ground” that forever altered the landscape of future negotiations, the settlements stood as symbols of Ross’s legacy.
After repeated Israeli violations of the terms it agreed to at Oslo, Ross urged the White House to avoid making any moves that might cause Israel to question America’s commitment to the special relationship. Behind the scenes, Ross spent hours at a time huddling with Israeli officials, helping them hammer out onerous demands, while hoarding communications that arrived from the Palestinians, refusing to allow National Security Advisors to view them. Ross alienated Palestinian negotiators to the point that Arafat personally asked Clinton for his removal.
Inside the Clinton administration, some national security advisers grumbled about Ross’s behavior, demanding he be replaced even though they knew he was entrenched to the point that he was practically intractable.
“Dennis assumed he knew more about the issue than anyone else,” a former State Department official told Swisher, “and when he felt close to getting a deal, it became evident to everyone that his more pro-Israeli feelings were coming out. As we came very close to the time to do a deal, Dennis became very nervous about the Israelis’ position on the potential deal.”
Though the Clinton administration rarely strayed from the Israel lobby’s diktat, Ross was so determined to extend Israeli influence over American policy that he actively undermined the President. In 1999, when Congress attempted to insert a special provision that would have eliminated the President’s authority to block legislation moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Ross argued at a meeting in the White House, “I just don’t see why we can’t move the embassy to Jerusalem.”
At the time, Ross’s son was interning for Senator Joseph Lieberman, a strong advocate of the legislation to move the embassy. In the end, the congressional initiative failed, while Clinton’s inner circle made efforts to isolate Ross from negotiations.
At Camp David in 2000, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority met to resolve final status issues. After repeated Israeli violations of the terms of Oslo, however Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was skeptical about the usefulness of more talks. He agreed to them only after extended pressure from Clinton, who explicitly promised that he would not blame Arafat if the negotiations failed.
Ross returned to his central role at Camp David, using his control over the flow of documents to ensure that Israel had the upper hand. “The ‘no surprises’ policy, under which we had to run everything by Israel first, stripped our policy of the independence and flexibility required for serious peacemaking,” Ross’s deputy, Aaron David Miller complained afterwards. Alluding to his boss, Miller described the American negotiating team at Camp David as “Israel’s lawyer.”
When the talks collapsed, primarily because of Israel’s refusal to relinquish key areas of East Jerusalem – Israel and the United States attempted to force Arafat’s team to agree to terms that stood well outside the Arab consensus – Clinton reneged on his promise to Arafat, publicly blaming him for rejecting a “generous offer” in order to help then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak win re-election.
Ross curiously omitted Clinton’s broken promise from his voluminous, 840-page account of Camp David, “The Missing Peace,” attacking Arafat instead as a “skunk” and offering the Orientalist and ahistorical claim that Arafat was psychologically incapable of making the transition from freedom fighter to statesman.
The American campaign against Arafat enabled Barak to introduce the “no partner” theme – that there was no Palestinian partner for peace – a canard designed to justify Israel’s brutal repression of the Second Intifada and its subsequent strategy of unilateralism. In October 2000, before the Palestinian campaign of suicide bombing had begun in earnest, Israeli troops fired 1.3 million bullets at Palestinians revolting against the occupation. Like the post-Oslo settlement construction boom, the lives – and limbs – shattered in the wake of Camp David symbolized Ross’s legacy of failure.
When the George W. Bush administration took power, Ross cooled his heels at WINEP, collecting a US$230,000 annual paycheck while padding his wallet with over US$220,000 in speaking fees from pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC. Ross delivered a total of zero speeches for Arab and Muslim groups during this period. Ross also found time to join leading neoconservatives in making the case for invading and occupying Iraq.
With the mission accomplished in Iraq, Ross joined John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and a Who’s Who of neocons to produce a report called “Meeting the Challenge: US Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development.” The paper was a bellicose collection of arguments for ramping up conflict with the evildoers of Iran. Veteran national security analyst Jim Lobe summarized the document most succinctly when he called it “a road map to war.”
The same year, Ross emerged in a novel role as a campaign proxy for Obama, who was attempting to weather a storm of slander from his Republican opponents. The latter accused Obama of everything from crypto-Islamic sentiments to a hidden pro-Palestinian agenda, pointing to a past relationship with Rashid Khalidi (the horror!) that in fact amounted to little more than a casual friendship.
From Obama’s vulnerability on the Israel issue came Ross’s strength, allowing the veteran insider to emerge as Obama’s de facto liaison to the Jewish donors who accounted for so much of the Democratic Party’s base of funding.
During the final months of the campaign, Ross was junketed to synagogues in affluent suburbs from Pennsylvania to Florida to reassure nervous pro-Israel voters that he would be their man on the inside, working for Israel’s interests at every turn.
When Obama appeared at the annual convention of AIPAC in 2008, Ross inserted a provocative line that reflected his personal zealotry: “Jerusalem must remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”
By mouthing the phrase, Obama contradicted official US policy, generating embarrassment and controversy that forced him to backpedal immediately afterwards. But thanks to the guiding hand of Ross, the candidate doubts inside the pro-Israel community that he might prove insufficiently pliant. Thus the flow of bundled donations continued unabated.
Ross’s departure from the Obama administration has fueled concerns about the President’s fundraising potential. “Ross’s departure is not a diplomatic problem for the White House; it is instead a problem for the Obama re-election campaign,” wrote Elliot Abrams, the neoconservative former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bush II administration. “For Ross was the only official in whom most American Jewish leaders had confidence. As most of them are Democrats who have long accepted Ross’s faith in the ‘peace process,’ they viewed his role as the assurance that a steady, experienced, pro-Israel hand was on or near the tiller.”
Ross’s dual role as Obama’s Jewish consigliere and Middle East advisor was the ultimate symbol of the Israel lobby’s corruption of American foreign policy. Ross may have failed at each turn, but each successive failure has enabled maximalist Israeli impulses, from the construction of settlements to the siege of the Palestinian population. In this regard, Ross fulfilled his promises to his cohorts in the lobby. Whether Ross and his allies have advanced the long term Israeli goal of securing international legitimacy is another matter, however. Indeed, it is no coincidence that he left government with the peace process in shambles and with Israeli leaders braying for a war of aggression against Iran. Perhaps nothing summarizes Ross’s career as well as a single line sung by Bob Dylan: “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”
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