“Mr. Middle East” Resigns
November 21, 2011
How wonderful it would be to write that the resignation of White House advisor Dennis Ross is good news for the Middle East. The fact that Barack Obama gave the unabashedly pro-Israel political operative major responsibility for the region testified to the President’s priority of assuaging Washington’s hard-line pro-Israel forces over actually promoting peace between Israelis and Arabs.
There are no signs that Ross’s nearly three years of serving the Obama administration contributed an iota to achieving a peace settlement. His diplomatic involvement in the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations yielded similar failure. But rather than give hope for a new beginning, his departure only illustrates what a sad shambles Obama’s Middle East policy has become.
By tradition, through its ties to the region, and by virtue of its role in the Madrid Conference of 1991, the United States has a deep, moral responsibility for the Middle East peace process. Now, on Obama’s watch, it is dead. Instead of negotiating a Palestinian state, Obama finds himself blocking the Palestinians’ bid to receive United Nations recognition of statehood. His name is mud in the Arab world. Nothing will happen on the peace front until a new U.S. president is elected–if then–but meanwhile the Middle East simmers with dangerous tensions between Iran and Israel, Gaza and Israel, in Syria and Lebanon. That’s not to mention the fragile political transitions underway in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
It is hard to overstate how badly Obama–with Ross at his side–has bungled American interests in the Middle East, not to mention his own political standing at home and in the region. If Obama’s capitulation to pro-Israel forces was intended at least to protect a domestic flank in his 2012 re-election campaign, he should think again. The abrupt and early departure of Israel’s chief booster in the White House is a sign that Obama is seriously at risk of losing Jewish votes and campaign donations. All this after Obama began his presidency with a bold, hopeful announcement about making peace a top priority–and appointing former Senator George Mitchell, who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, as his Middle East envoy. But Mitchell himself resigned six months ago, after Obama repeatedly backed down in a standoff with Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sorry to say “I told you so,” but bringing Ross into the Obama administration was doomed from the start, as I wrote on my blog at TIME magazine on December 23, 2008.
Middle East watchers are trying to follow a behind the scenes contest for Barack Obama's ear when it comes to the region. The winner could become the incoming administration's single most influential advisor on the area--perhaps Obama's Middle East czar…. The contest includes among others two Obama campaign advisors with very different perspectives: Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton's Arab-Israeli negotiator, and Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel....My take is that Ross would be a significant disappointment, Kurtzer an excellent choice. The contest, in fact, is more a tussle between two approaches to Middle East policy making than between individuals. The selection of a Dennis Ross would represent the past, which is to say the failure of U.S. policy in the region; Kurtzer would represent a change–a subtle change perhaps, but change nonetheless–given his frank acknowledgment of what has gone wrong with U.S. policy and a common sense prescription for getting it right.
Ross' s deep personal role in past failed policy ought to be enough to disqualify him from any supremo role. You can read an exhaustive, self-serving account of Ross's statecraft in his 815-page memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace but here's my critical, very abbreviated version. He's already held the job of chief U.S. Middle East envoy for 12 years, through the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations, and wasn't very good at it. After the landmark Madrid peace conference, he and his bosses proved unable to coax Israelis and Palestinians toward an agreement; the Norwegians stepped in and secretly mediated the Oslo Accords between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993. By then, Ross's task was to implement the Oslo framework agreement, which envisioned a comprehensive and final peace deal by 1999. But Ross should take a large part of the responsibility for the mismanagement of the subsequent negotiations, which gradually dissolved into another Palestinian intifada, the worst spasm of violence in the conflict in 50 years, and the rise of the anti-negotiations Islamist Hamas group against Arafat's party…
Ross's insistence on putting all the fault on Yasser Arafat–blaming himself and the Clinton administration only for trusting the Palestinian too much–is a testimony that is either disingenuous or breathtakingly self-absorbed. His palpable one-sidedness is why he remains completely distrusted by the Arabs he has negotiated with. Arabs always expected an American tilt toward Israel because of the strong U.S.-Israeli relationship; from bitter experience, they regard Ross as far too biased to be acceptable or successful as the "honest broker" for ending the conflict…
Ross proved too tolerant of Israeli overreaching, too ambivalent about the rights and legitimate interests of Palestinians and too tone deaf to the impending collapse of the peace process with all its grave consequences.
Scott MacLeod is managing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and is a professor in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.