Dennis Ross was the architect of a policy that centered on shielding the Israeli government from pressure while hoping that it would decide to end the occupation on their own. The result was an epic, two-decade long failure
Dennis Ross, president Obama’s top adviser on Israel-Palestine, is leaving the White House by December. Ross, a veteran diplomat who took part in the negotiations through the 90’s and until the failed talks between PM Barak and Arafat at the beginning of the previous decade, has let his decision be known in a lunch with Jewish leaders. This is not surprising: Ross has enjoyed good relations with Israeli and Jewish officials. Last night, when Ross’ departure was made public, Haaretz’s headline was “Netanyahu’s friend in the White House is leaving.”
Dennis Ross might have been valuable for the president in maintaining good relations with Israeli lobbyists in Washington and inside the Democratic Party, but his Middle East policies were a disaster. If a single man can be blamed for a two decades of failure, Ross is this person.
More than any neo-con, Ross can be identified with the way American administrations tried to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians in the last twenty years: creating a space for an Israeli internal conversation and once consensus is reached, forcing the Palestinians to agree to the Israeli terms, usually through a combination of threats and bribes targeting the political elites (serving as “Israel’s lawyer,” a diplomat working under Ross in Camp David called it).
The outcome was the one any reasonable person could expect: Shielded from outside pressure, Israelis have continued to strengthen their hold over the West Bank, while the “vigorous internal debate” in “the only democracy in the region” reached nowhere. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership, being forced to make more and more concessions without getting anything in return, lost all credibility with its own people, giving rise to other forces, which weren’t seen as taking orders from abroad.
The hope that the Israeli political process would lead the government into leaving the West Bank has failed again and again. Left on their own, it was proved that Israeli leaders will always prefer not to spend their limited political capital on evacuating settlements. The only exceptions – the Oslo accord and the Gaza pullout – came after the first and second Intifadas. The tragic truth is that violence has been very effective in gaining Israeli concessions, while America’s one-sided diplomacy only bought Jerusalem more and more time to expand settlements and make the two-state solution impossible.
True to his bizarre version of peacemaking, in the last couple of years Ross has been busy defending the most extreme government Israel has known, led by a Prime Minister that publicly boasted about the way he manipulated and deceived Ross’ own bosses at the Clinton administration. Finally, the Palestinian side lost both patience and faith in President Obama and his administration, and turned to the international community instead. Palestinians I spoke to last month told me that the boost in Abbas’ popularity wasn’t because of the UN bid itself – Palestinians are smart enough to understand it would get them nowhere – but because he finally stood up to the United States. Nothing could be more telling.
At the same time, the Israeli opposition was forced to support the Netanyahu government line, because when it comes to the peace process, no mainstream Israeli leader would take a position that is further to the left than the American negotiator. Ross and his team pretty much guaranteed that there wouldn’t be an effective opposition to Netanyahu at home and no pressure from abroad. Given these conditions, seeing the Israeli position move further to the right – the government now opposes concessions offered by both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in previous rounds of negotiations – shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Ross is finally out – let’s hope that this time it’s for good – but his ideas are still popular in Washington, and even in some European capitals. It’s hard to believe, but there are still serious, well-meaning politicians and diplomats who think that left on their own, Israelis wil simply wake up one day and decide to end the occupation. It won’t happen. The next Israeli government could actually be worse than this one, as hard as it is to imagine. Even if Netanyahu is not elected again, there isn’t a serious political force, or a single political leader, who sees it as his or her mission to lead Israel out of the West Bank and there won’t be any mainstream party even running on this platform in the next election. The current trends could easily continue for another decade.
Hopefully, Ross’ departure will serve as an opportunity to examine the entire American and European approach to the conflict, to the Palestinians, and to the government in Jerusalem.