Dennis Ross Caught Between Obama and Netanyahu

With Ali Gharib

In the ongoing showdown between the Obama administration and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross appears to be the man caught in the no-man’s land between the White House and the Israel Lobby.

Since Netanyahu’s snub of Biden earlier in the month and the White House’s closed-doors meeting with Bibi last week, the Obama administration has been seen as taking a far-harder stance against Israeli settlement construction than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.

One of the most interesting developments over the past few weeks has been how the range of acceptable topics in the debate over U.S.-Israeli relations has broadened after Gen. David Petraeus made the linkage between Israel’s failure to make a peace deal and U.S. security interests in the region.

AIPAC and the broader Israel Lobby have not been taking this drumming sitting down.  AIPAC convinced more than two-thirds of the House of Representatives to sign a letter “reaffirming” the U.S.-Israel alliance and calling on the Obama administration to end the public denunciations of Israel’s recent behavior.

For its part, AIPAC’s opposition to official U.S. policy on settlements — not to mention international law — was starkly displayed when the group’s spokesman was forced to deny the authenticity of an AIPAC press release parroting Obama’s demand to end settlements.

But AIPAC isn’t the only one questioning Obama’s approach.

On Sunday, Politico’s Laura Rozen quoted an unnamed U.S. official calling out Dennis Ross for basically taking Bibi’s line:

“He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests,” one U.S. official told POLITICO Saturday. “And he doesn’t seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this administration.”

Predictably, this set off a round of condemnations of the unnamed official as the administration worked hard to head off any suggestion that there might be disagreement within the White House on how to deal with Netanyahu or, worse yet, that a U.S. official might be put under scrutiny for putting the interests of Israel before the U.S.

Ross’s supporters lashed out with the easiest attacks they can muster against what is a fair critique of Ross — namely, that this was the old anti-Semitic canard of accusing Jews of dual loyalty. To wit, Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, who served in the IDF as a prison guard during the First Intifada, wrote:

Laura Rozen allows an anonymous Administration official to hijack her blog and accuse the National Security Council’s Dennis Ross of dual-loyalty.

But the argument is a straw man. Goldberg’s colleague and former sparring partner Andrew Sullivan picks him apart (worth reading in full for Sullivan’s defense of Rozen):

So Ross’s view is that Jerusalem should be retained entirely by Israel, as is the obvious position of Netanyahu and much of the pro-Israel lobby. […] So Ross’s publicly stated position is ineluctably at total odds with his president’s, and Obama’s demands on stopping new settlements in East Jerusalem must make little sense to him.

Ross is not accused of dual-loyalty. Rather, he’s fairly accused of being a symbol of — and according to Rozen’s report, arguing for — the same tired peace process policies of the last two decades.

Ross is a three-time loser in Israeli-Palestinian peace making — he was the lead U.S. envoy to the region throughout the failure after Madrid, the failure after Oslo, and the failure at the Camp David Summit. The collapse of that approach was hit on the head by Amb. Dan Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky in their excellent book, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace — “Power dynamics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are deeply unbalanced.” (They also hit on linkage: “This devastating failure has hurt U.S. interests and damaged our ability to gain cooperation from allies and key regional players. At the popular level, it has weakened the U.S. position in the region and on the world stage.”) Guess who shows up when Kurtzer and Lasensky quote an Arab negotiator:

“The perception always was that Dennis [Ross] started from the Israeli bottom line, that he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs.… He was never looked at … as a trusted world figure or as an honest broker.”

You get the feeling that Ross is one of the characters veteran State Department Mid East hand Aaron David Miller had in mind when he wrote a now-famous Washington Post op-ed called “Israel’s Lawyer”:

For far too long, many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations.

It should come as no surprise that Dennis Ross is staking out an anti-linkage, pro-Netanyahu position in the administration. A New York Times excerpt of his 2009 book, Myths, Allusions and Peace, co-written with neocon Washington Institute fellow David Makovsky, is pretty much a diatribe against linking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the host of problems faced by the U.S. in the region.

Phil Weiss has more on the book’s opposition to a concept central to the direction of Obama’s Mid East policies, and goes so far as to call Ross “the living embodiment of the Israel lobby.”

Ross got his job on the Iran desk at State (though he’s been shuffled around and works now through the NSC) by writing Obama’s AIPAC speech delivered during the campaign, in which the then-candidate alluded to an “undivided Jerusalem” (interpretations of this statement differ). While Ross has thrown in his lot with neocons on Iran, the silver lining of the appointment was that he was far, far away from the Arab-Israeli peace process. Paul Woodward picks up on the irony of Ross reasserting himself in that arena:

If one man can be said to epitomize the failure of the peace process more than any other American official, it’s probably Dennis Ross. Why then, one might then ask, would he have such a central role in getting this “derailed” process “back on track”?

Now that this administration appears to have decided that linking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to broader U.S. interests in the region is exactly what they’ll do, it should raise questions about what role Dennis Ross can continue to play.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Can’t he be fingered as the principle failure of the Camp David talks between Barak and Arafat? The Nation had an account (that could have lead me here) that laid so much of the failure at the feet of Barak, that Clinton was screaming mad, and felt betrayed by the Israeli PM.

    Of course Ross was the biggest voice blaming Arafat. (edited)

  2. Why not stop re-writing history? Dennis Ross was not the principle agent of failure at Camp David – If we believe President Clinton, the breakdown of talks can be laid squarely at the feet of Yasser Arafat. See:
    Dennis Ross, the other man actually in the room, so to speak, also is pretty clear about whether Barak or Arafat was the screw-up.

    The Palestinian leadership has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity –

  3. Well Elihu, I hear you were a bit overextended with dinner reservations this week. Anyway, what would Ross say? Anything other than blame his standard Anti-semitic line–You know Ross is one of those Anglo-Saxon Hebrews, I dare say the Arab speaking Arabs are the Semites.

    As to rewriting history, let’s go back to 1946 at that time Jews owned/occupied less than 5% of the land, then the religious fanatics came, leaving not a stone standing upon another and other Jewish classics (with regards to Harvey Korman)

  4. Elihu, there was was another man in the room and his perspective is quite different from the two self-serving ones you’re relying on: “If I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David.” This comes from Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak’s chief negotiator and the Israel foreign minister at the time.

  5. During President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Ross worked under Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon. There, he co-authored a study recommending greater U.S. intervention in “the Persian Gulf Region because of our need for Persian Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
    In the mid-1980s Ross co-founded with Martin Indyk the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-sponsored Washington Institute for Near East Policy (“WINEP”). His first WINEP paper called for appointment of a “non-Arabist Special Middle East envoy” who would “not feel guilty about our relationship with Israel.” He has been a war-mongering Zionist since 1967. That he was ever given any role in any US government is an outrage which has cost America very dear indeed.

Comments are closed.