The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The NYT on Dennis Ross

When George Mitchell resigned last week, a PA official suggested it might have been because he had been elbowed out of his role as US envoy for the Middle East peace process by senior White House advisor Dennis Ross, the longtime peace-processor of the Bush I and Clinton administrations. Some were skeptical when it came from a Palestinian, but the NYT runs a rare story basically confirming this take on Ross' role in the White House as an advocate for Israel. In a sense it might be seen as a positive step that the NYT is talking about this: Ross is a major figure pro-Israel figure of the Democratic establishment with strong ties as a "centrist" or "moderate" in the Israel lobby.

One thing that's signicant in the article is that Jordan's King Abdullah chimes in on the criticism of Ross:

From the State Department, “we get good responses,” the Jordanian king said, according to several people who were in the room. And from the Pentagon, too. “But not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross” — President Obama’s chief Middle East adviser.

Mr. Ross, King Abdullah concluded, “is giving wrong advice to the White House.”

By almost all accounts, Dennis B. Ross — Middle East envoy to three presidents, well-known architect of incremental and painstaking diplomacy in the Middle East that eschews game-changing plays — is Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town.

Think about it: you have multiple Arab figures, all "moderate" allies (if not stooges) of the US, saying Obama has a Dennis Ross problem in his Israel-Palestine policy.

Another thing is that the piece highlights Ross being at odds with Obama on strategy — notably Obama's statement last week that the 1967 border should be the basis for a two-state solution (never mind that this has long been the official US position, somehow everyone is excited over this in Washington, which might very well be a tactic by Bibi and his DC supporters to describe this bedrock of US Israel-Palestine policy as, somehow, Obama's innovation.) Consider the following passage:

But now, as the president is embarking on a course that, once again, puts him at odds with Israel’s conservative prime minister, the question is how much of a split the president is willing to make not only with the Israeli leader, but with his own hand-picked Middle East adviser.

The White House would not say where Mr. Ross, 62, stood on the president’s announcement on Thursday that Israel’s pre-1967 borders — adjusted to account for Israeli security needs and Jewish settlements in the West Bank — should form the basis for a negotiated settlement. Mr. Ross did not respond to requests for comment for this article. His friends and associates say he has long believed that peace negotiations will succeed only if the United States closely coordinates its efforts with the Israelis.

This basically re-asserts the common wisdom that Ross is the quintessential "Israel's lawyer" inside the administration (as his deputy Aaron David Miller wrote of the Ross team's negotiating style during the Oslo years). A little further:

Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s backers in the United States view Mr. Ross as a key to holding at bay what they see as pro-Palestinian sympathies expressed by Mr. Mitchell; Mr. Obama’s first national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones; and even the president himself.

“Starting with Mitchell and Jones, there was a preponderance of advisers who were more in tune with the Palestinian narrative than the Israeli narrative,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a friend of Mr. Ross. “Dennis balanced that.”

From my perspective the surprising thing is that the article acknowledges that Ross has enough clout to go against most senior advisors and Obama's alleged instincts, but also suggests Ross has gained in strength and would have opposed the 2009 move to stop settlement expansion and devised the 2010 scandalous offering to Israel made for a 90-day suspension of settlement activity. The real question is, how much was Ross responsible for preventing the failure of these policies that for the first time in 20 years tried to address the fact that Israel was creating a reality on the ground that made the classic two-state solution impossible? 

The article ends once again confirming the "Ross drove Mitchell out" narrative:

In April, Mr. Mitchell, who, one Arab official said, often held up the specter of Mr. Ross to the Palestinians as an example of whom they would end up with if he left, sent Mr. Obama a letter of resignation. By some accounts, one reason was his inability to see eye to eye with Mr. Ross.

“Mitchell wanted something broader and more forward-leaning, and Dennis seems to be taking a more traditional stance,” said David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who has written about the National Security Council.

But, Mr. Rothkopf said, Mr. Obama must now take into account the emerging realities in the Arab world, including a new populism brought by the democratic movement that may make even governments that were not hostile to Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, more insistent on pushing the case of the Palestinians.

“Experience can be helpful, but it can also be an impediment to viewing things in a new way,” he said.

No kidding. By NYT standards of coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel lobby politics, this might be seen as a breakthrough piece in some respects. Yet, by the standards of journalism the NYT would generally uphold in other areas affecting US policymaking, it is in some respects a weak piece that presents a superficial portrait of Ross and his ties to the Israel lobby. I am not just talking about his recent sinecure at WINEP, the think tank that started off as AIPAC's research arm. It is about his views and the positions he had held at institutions that are basically extensions of the Israeli government. For instance, Ross is against the division of Jerusalem, as Phil Weiss highlighted a couple of years ago. He also wrote that bit in Obama's pre-election speech to AIPAC in 2008. He was the chair of the Jewish Policy Planning Institute, an arm of the Jewish Agency that holds the same positions on Jerusalem "indivisible" status. The Jewish Agency is the international body that encourages emigration to Israel — it is quasi-governmental and supports the settlement policy. Why are these things not mentioned?

(Update: I was unaware of this, but Ross also serves on the board of Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum, a forum for some of the most out-there neoconservative commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the region and Pipes' notorious anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab rants — remember his campaign against the teaching of Arabic in a New York school, for instance. Ali Gharib has the goods.)

This NYT piece shows how much things have progressed in the mainstream media's coverage of the issue of the Israel lobby, even if coverage of the actual conflict still lags behind, no thanks to Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kerchner. But it also shows it has some way to go before we might expect it to be treated with the same journalistic seriousness as, say, the energy lobbies or the China lobby or the gun lobby.