Dennis Ross, the longtime maestro of American efforts to build peace between Israel and the Palestinians, is stepping down. He follows George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, who threw in the towel in May. The two resignations underline what is already clear: there isn’t much left of the White House’s peace strategy. Here’s the story from the Washington Post:
Ross, 62, has served as an adviser on Middle East affairs during four administrations and was the chief Middle East envoy for former President Bill Clinton. Weeks after Obama’s inauguration he was appointed special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then, in June 2009, moved to the White House to become a special assistant to the president on the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and South Asia…Ross, who helped set the administration’s course on relations with Iran as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is returning to private life after a tenure marked by frustrations and setbacks as well as tumultuous change.
Ross is one of the hardest-working and most respected Middle East negotiators in the business. His critics within the administration sniped that he functioned too much as “Israel’s lawyer,” but Ross has always grasped what this administration only painfully learned: counter-intuitive as it may seem, progress on peace — when it is possible at all — is only possible when Israel and the US are singing from the same songbook. The Israelis are strong on the ground, strong in the US Congress, and they need to be coaxed and cajoled rather than poked and pushed. Those are facts, and negotiators — or presidents — who lose sight of them often end up with black eyes.Ross must be one of the most frustrated people in the world. More than once he has seen what looked like a full agreement hovering just out of reach; the bird of peace could never, however, quite be caught and increasing numbers of people now believe that neither side is ready to settle for what it can actually get. Until that changes, there may not be all that much the US can do.Peace between Israel and Palestine and a reset with Iran were President Obama’s main goals when he moved into the White House. At this point, he doesn’t have much to show on either front. That is not surprising; more American presidents have been frustrated by the Middle East than fulfilled by it. The way in which the administration’s diplomacy collapsed and the expensive and painful unraveling that ensued (and is still taking its toll as the Palestinian bid for UN membership forces the administration down a path it had hoped to avoid) was a result of mistakes made before Ross was in a position to block them. It is likely, however, that no peace would have come on Obama’s watch no matter what the White House did.The question now is whether Dennis Ross’ core method of negotiating will continue to shape US approaches to this vexing question. Under Ross’ stewardship, the US was trying to sell an agreement to two sides who didn’t really want it. We clearly wanted a quick agreement on the two state solution more than either the Israelis or the Palestinians. That was a weak bargaining position, and Dennis Ross spent much of the last twenty years being tortured by negotiators from both sides who took full advantage of the US stance. The American presidents Ross worked for were willing to pay high for an agreement or even the appearance of progress; both Israelis and Palestinians grew skilled at extorting concessions in order to keep (American) hope alive.It remains true that an agreement between the two sides would be a huge victory for the United States, but making endless down payments on an agreement that never quite materializes may not be the wisest possible course. In any case, all of Ross’ fabled skills have not been enough to prevent the two sides from moving farther apart; his departure underlines the need for new approaches to this most intractable of international disputes.