Dennis Ross and Mideast Policy

The New York Times reports about (OneVoice/PeaceWorks Foundation Board member) Dennis Ross’s move from the State Department to the White House.  It offers a lot of theories for the move, many of them probably on target. But it fails to mention one of the most important likely factors: the interplay between all these Mideast conflicts, and the need for an integrated broad approach and appreciation when tackling them. 

It does not mean that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will fix the Middle East! (Ross would plainly disagree with that, as the article points out).  But it does mean that Iran’s arming of Hezbollah and Hamas deeply handicaps efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that lack of Israeli-Palestinian progress hampers US national interests – as well as Israeli and Palestinian and Arab progress itself.

New York Times

June 19, 2009

On the White House

In a Staff Shuffle, Signs of Obama’s Direction on Mideast


WASHINGTON — So now Dennis B. Ross, the Obama administration’s senior Iran policy maker, less than three months into his State Department job, is moving to the White House, administration officials say.

As Mark Landler of The New York Times reported on Tuesday, Mr. Ross will be taking on an expanded role covering Iran and other Middle East issues at the National Security Council. White House officials still haven’t officially announced the move — hopefully they won’t keep Mr. Ross hanging on a limb for as long as the State Department did before announcing his job one night back in February. But several officials confirm that it is about to happen.

The big question, though, is why? Obama administration officials have been cryptic when asked about the reason for the shuffle. Does it mean that the White House is the real center of the action when it comes to foreign policy? Were there too many special envoys over at the State Department? Was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not giving Mr. Ross enough face time? Or is Mr. Ross going to assume more of a role in Mr. Obama’s evolving Middle East policy, particularly in relations with Israel?

Senior administration officials said that Mr. Obama values Mr. Ross, who backed Mr. Obama early on during the election campaign, and wanted the benefit of his strategic thinking nearby. One official suggested that the combination of Mr. Ross, a veteran Arab-Israeli negotiator and longtime foreign policy hand, and National Security Adviser General James L. Jones would help the administration to come up with a better, more cohesive long-term strategy for America’s relations with the world.

David Makovsky, Mr. Ross’s co-author in the just-published book Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (Viking), offered a different possible reason: “Dennis Ross is the Lebron James of Middle East diplomacy,” Mr. Makovsky said.

While the comparison is somewhat strained, the larger point is as valid as any of the other theories meant to explain Mr. Ross’s move from Foggy Bottom to Pennsylvania Avenue. Mr. Obama is taking on the contentious issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace early on in his administration, in contrast to his predecessors, former President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who both pushed hardest for Israeli-Palestinian peace towards the end of their terms.

Mr. Obama, then, could use Mr. Ross closer to him in the White House, to take advantage of his wide network of contacts in the Israeli political world and among the Israel lobby here in the United States, and his years of experience as a senior adviser to former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

In their book, Mr. Ross and Mr. Makovsky lay out prescriptions for how to deal with Iran, including with a blend of international diplomatic and economic pressure.

They suggest that past efforts to stabilize the Middle East have failed because American policy leaders were working under wrong assumptions, or “mythologies.” In particular, they seek to knock down the idea that Israeli-Palestinian peace is the key to solving all of the Middle East’s problems; too often that formula lets Arab countries and Iran off the hook. “We ought to be deepening our relationship with Israel so that we can work more closely to resolve challenges and address new opportunities in ways that maximize the benefit to both sides,” the two men write.

In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has struck a sharp tone with Israel, calling for a halt to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and elevating the Palestinians, in his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo earlier this month, to equal footing with the Israelis.

Those actions have earned for Mr. Obama some wariness in Israel, where recent polls show that 51 percent of Israelis sampled said that Mr. Obama cared more about Palestinian statehood than about Israeli security. Mr. Obama’s administration, from Mrs. Clinton to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to Mr. Ross, is filled with politicians and foreign policy experts who have high standing among the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, but moving Mr. Ross from the State Department to right next door at the White House could help to protect Mr. Obama’s flank even further when it comes to Israel.

For Mr. Ross, there’s an added benefit as well: Unlike the two other high-profile special envoys at the State Department — Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and George Mitchell, the special envoy to the Middle East, who are both presidential envoys — Mr. Ross has reported exclusively to Mrs. Clinton.

Transfering to the White House with an expanded portfolio moves Mr. Ross from the periphery to the center of the Obama administration’s foreign policy operation, one administration official suggested.

Not to mention that it really is crowded in the special envoy hallways at the State Department, what with Mr. Mitchell, the Kobe Bryant of Northern Ireland diplomacy, and Mr. Holbrooke, the Michael Jordan of global diplomacy, already parked there.

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