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Ross Exits As Obama Peace Hopes Fade

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.

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  • Anthony

    WRM, “his departure underlines the need for new approaches to this most intractable of international disputes” conceptualizes U.S. foreign policy initiatives vis-a-vis Israelis and Palestinians going forward.

  • Luke Lea

    There is no solution until Europe becomes involved, assumes moral, historic, and financial responsibility for Palestinian grievances.

  • Roy

    I could not disagree more, Luke. There will be no solution until Palestinians assume moral, historic, and financial responsibility for Palestinian grievances, which, since at least 2000, have been self-created.

    And incidentally, if you’re waiting for the Europeans to do something for anybody but themselves, Judgment Day will come and go and you’ll still be waiting. The Europeans, which means France and Germany, don’t even want to bail out Greece and Italy.

    Look–with the publication of Condeleeza Rice’s memoir, we have one more, high-level attestation of the comprehensive offer for peace plus shared control of Jerusalem made by Olmert to Abbas, which he rejected, according to his own negotiator, Erekat. Erekat has tried to whitewash his initial description of the rejection, but still acknowledges the offer, as he acknowledges Barak’s offer, described in detail by Bill Clinton.

    So we have Bill Clinton, Condeleeza Rice, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Saeb Erekat and Mahmoud Abbas acknowledging these two, historic offers of independence to the Palestinians, who said no.

    Prince Bandar, of Saudi Arabia, longtime D.C. diplomat, and behind-the-scenes man called Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s offer, stewarded by Clinton, a crime against the people of the region.

    On top of this, the Israelis withdrew from Gaza, withdrew from southern Lebanon, and got nothing but a barrage of thousands of rockets, and a stone thrown by Edward Said, in return.

    For a decade, Israel did absolutely everything it could to divest itself from the territories, when doing it bilaterally didn’t work, and the Palestinians criticized it, they tried it unilaterally, and the Palestinians criticized.

    The Palestinians in Gaza were granted free elections, and look at whom they elected–a theocratic death cult that runs on weapons supplied by the theocrats in Iran.

    If you really want peace between Israelis and Palestinians, get the world to lean on the Palestinians to accept the deals they’ve been offered.

    The Israelis have gone all out for peace.

  • roy

    Think of it this way. Can you furnish any examples from history of a people seeking independence, with the sympathetic support of many of the nations of the world, repeatedly turning down offers of land and sovereignty encompassing nearly all of their demands?

    Forget the rejection in 1948, and just think about the Barak and Olmert offers, bolstered by Rabin’s understanding with Arafat, Barak’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza. What is going on with Palestine? israel’s leaders have had a popular mandate to offer land for peace, and they’ve done so. And yet the Israelis are the ones who’ve come away empty handed, Dr. Mead, not Dennis Ross.

    Suppose, around the time of Appomattox, a treaty was put to the South by the forces of the Union. Before accepting it, even in its state of defeat, a census of popular opinion had been taken, measuring the level grass-roots support for the stipulations of the settlement, which subsequently discovered widespread dissatisfaction with its terms among member nations of the Confederacy. Had you made peace contingent on the unconditional acceptance of the postwar political arrangements and concessions entailed by the treaty, by all of the South’s self-appointed representatives, we would still be fighting the Civil War.

    Or World War II: what if, before concluding the peace treaties that led to extraordinary economic prosperity for Germany and Japan, as well as democratic government, the Allies were obliged to try to satisfy the unappeasable caviling of their erstwhile adversaries before setting up their spectacularly successful postwar occupational governments? World War II would never have ended.

    Incidentally, with all of their great success, Germany and Japan still have large American troop installations, which are still popular in the former, if not the latter, for the economic stimulus they provide. Has that hindered them in any way?

    Palestinians clamor for the independence they say is so desperately urgent, yet every time it is offered to them, they postpone it.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    While everyone talks about this as if it were a fight over land, this is wrong. This is a religious war between the Islam culture and everyone else; the Jews are just the most accessible, and visible. But Christians, Hindu, Baha’is, and others are all under regular attacks from Moslems. No tribute in land or money is going to be enough to gain peace from the [certain persons], as they will always demand more.

  • Ed

    The Palestinians have an opportunity to form a new democracy, a step ahead of current Democracies.

    Let the businessmen vote first and place their vote on the general ballet. This will attract practical moderates that want trade and peace. Israel will feel more comfortable with a state focused on trade and peace and the Palestinians will create an environment for a strong job making economy.

    Let us try a new approach, where both sides can predict a blossoming future.

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