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US top envoy leaving, and so should his politics

Dennis Ross was the architect of a policy that centered on shielding the Israeli government from pressure while hoping that it would decide to end the occupation on their own. The result was an epic, two-decade long failure

U.S. Special Assistant to the President Dennis Ross shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. A member of Ross' team described his policy as serving as "Israel's lawyer." August 2010 (photo: State Department/Public Domain)

Dennis Ross, president Obama’s top adviser on Israel-Palestine, is leaving the White House by December. Ross, a veteran diplomat who took part in the negotiations through the 90’s and until the failed talks between PM Barak and Arafat at the beginning of the previous decade, has let his decision be known in a lunch with Jewish leaders. This is not surprising: Ross has enjoyed good relations with Israeli and Jewish officials. Last night, when Ross’ departure was made public, Haaretz’s headline was “Netanyahu’s friend in the White House is leaving.”

Dennis Ross might have been valuable for the president in maintaining good relations with Israeli lobbyists in Washington and inside the Democratic Party, but his Middle East policies were a disaster. If a single man can be blamed for a two decades of failure, Ross is this person.

More than any neo-con, Ross can be identified with the way American administrations tried to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians in the last twenty years: creating a space for an Israeli internal conversation and once consensus is reached, forcing the Palestinians to agree to the Israeli terms, usually through a combination of threats and bribes targeting the political elites (serving as “Israel’s lawyer,” a diplomat working under Ross in Camp David called it).

The outcome was the one any reasonable person could expect: Shielded from outside pressure, Israelis have continued to strengthen their hold over the West Bank, while the “vigorous internal debate” in “the only democracy in the region” reached nowhere. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership, being forced to make more and more concessions without getting anything in return, lost all credibility with its own people, giving rise to other forces, which weren’t seen as taking orders from abroad.

The hope that the Israeli political process would lead the government into leaving the West Bank has failed again and again. Left on their own, it was proved that Israeli leaders will always prefer not to spend their limited political capital on evacuating settlements. The only exceptions – the Oslo accord and the Gaza pullout – came after the first and second Intifadas. The tragic truth is that violence has been very effective in gaining Israeli concessions, while America’s one-sided diplomacy only bought Jerusalem more and more time to expand settlements and make the two-state solution impossible.

True to his bizarre version of peacemaking, in the last couple of years Ross has been busy defending the most extreme government Israel has known, led by a Prime Minister that publicly boasted about the way he manipulated and deceived Ross’ own bosses at the Clinton administration. Finally, the Palestinian side lost both patience and faith in President Obama and his administration, and turned to the international community instead. Palestinians I spoke to last month told me that the boost in Abbas’ popularity wasn’t because of the UN bid itself – Palestinians are smart enough to understand it would get them nowhere – but because he finally stood up to the United States. Nothing could be more telling.

At the same time, the Israeli opposition was forced to support the Netanyahu government line, because when it comes to the peace process, no mainstream Israeli leader would take a position that is further to the left than the American negotiator. Ross and his team pretty much guaranteed that there wouldn’t be an effective opposition to Netanyahu at home and no pressure from abroad. Given these conditions, seeing the Israeli position move further to the right – the government now opposes concessions offered by both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in previous rounds of negotiations – shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Ross is finally out – let’s hope that this time it’s for good – but his ideas are still popular in Washington, and even in some European capitals. It’s hard to believe, but there are still serious, well-meaning politicians and diplomats who think that left on their own, Israelis wil simply wake up one day and decide to end the occupation. It won’t happen. The next Israeli government could actually be worse than this one, as hard as it is to imagine. Even if Netanyahu is not elected again, there isn’t a serious political force, or a single political leader, who sees it as his or her mission to lead Israel out of the West Bank and there won’t be any mainstream party even running on this platform in the next election. The current trends could easily continue for another decade.

Hopefully, Ross’ departure will serve as an opportunity to examine the entire American and European approach to the conflict, to the Palestinians, and to the government in Jerusalem.

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    1. aristeides

      Putting the blame on Ross tends to absolve the presidents to put him where he could do the most harm, knowing full well that he would. And this means Obama, in particular, who know exactly what he was handing the Palestinians over to.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Fascinating Noam. Are you willing to reveal the basis for your claim that each successive Israeli government pushes even harder to eventually arrive at Greater Israel? I highly suggest that the Israel controls the US government is misguided. I think that most of the force behind supporting Israel in its policies, is that most US international corporations who make money in the Middle East believe that the chaos kept in place by Israel increases their business opportunities. And further, an idea I was introduced to recently, Israel’s technology provides a fair amount of components for many of the US’s sophisticated weapon systems. And probably there is a lot of Israeli intelligence given to the US, that they US doesn’t believe it could get anywhere else.

      Reply to Comment
    3. This strategy of course would have had more merit if an actual peacemaker was living in the high walled Rehavia compound home to the Israeli PM. If Rabin was PM, serving to protect Israel might have paid more dues, however it is patently unfair for a supposed “honest broker” to be acting in this fashion. GOOD RIDDANCE ROSS!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Tim H.

      I have followed Palestinian/Israeli negotiations over the last twenty years and agree that nothing has been accomplished. There are many factors out of US control which have affected the negotiations. As a US citizen, what pains me the most, is the inability of my government to impartially criticize the behavior and tactics of both sides. Our almost unequivacable support of the Israeli position has rendered our position as irrelevant and counterproductive.
      An interesting side note is that I believe I read in a Dennnis Ross book written over 10 years ago, that Netanyahu could not be trusted to deliver an any promises he made to the peace negotiators.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Anna Candlin

      Zionist literature, long before 1948, makes it clear that the Zionist project was to take the entirety of Palestinian land, driving the Palestinians abroad, into refugee camps or to their death (Jenin, Lebanon, Gaza, murder of children etc)and replacing the dispossed Arabs with Jews.The plan is still being daily implemented.Residual Arabs are “immobilised” by the 43 Israeli discriminatory laws against it’s Arab citizens,behind checkpoints and walls,inside the open-air prison of Gaza and inside Israeli jails.
      All Peace Negotiations have been a gloss for international consumption, to distract and confuse people about facts on the ground.Ross is one of hundreds of collaborators who perfectly understood their role as facilitators in the project. Soldiers, journalists, doctors, teachers, construction workers, engineers, civilians, architects, bankers, university professors, religious leaders etc have all helped the politicos to dispossess and de-develope an indigenous people, their property and their culture.

      Reply to Comment