Dennis Ross meets with former President Bill Clinton at Camp David.
Photo courtesy Washington Institute for Near East Policy
October 2, 2008
Former Ambassador Dennis Ross, senior adviser on Middle East affairs to the Barack Obama campaign, told NJ Jewish News that Obama, not his Republican rival, John McCain, “would change the dynamic” to facilitate peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and ease the potential nuclear threat from Iran.
In a telephone conversation arranged by the Obama campaign’s New Jersey headquarters, Ross spoke with NJJN by telephone Sept. 25 — the only Jewish newspaper in the state to be granted an interview.
“The stakes are so high in this election. I look at Israel’s strategic position. I look at the threat from Iran. I look at Hamas’ building a mini-terror state in Gaza,” said Ross, a career diplomat who has held high positions in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations.
“We can’t afford four more years of a policy that continues to create that kind of a strategic context.”
Along with Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a Princeton professor, Ross serves as a key adviser on a campaign that has been trying to convince Jewish swing voters that Obama is strong on Israel and security. This week the American Jewish Committee released a survey showing Obama leads McCain by 27 points among Jews stating a preference — but still lags behind Jewish support for previous Democrats like John Kerry and Al Gore.
While insisting he is “more interested in policies than politics,” Ross addressed some Jewish voters’ concern about several key figures in the diplomatic community who have been variously linked to the Obama campaign and who critics say are critical of Israel.
Primary among them is Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter.
“Brzezinski is not an adviser to the campaign,” Ross insisted. “There is a lot of disinformation that is being pushed, but he is not an adviser to the campaign. Brzezinski came out and supported Obama early because of the war in Iraq. A year or so ago they talked a couple of times. That’s the extent of it, and Sen. Obama has made it clear that on other Middle Eastern issues, Brzezinski is not who he looks to.
“They don’t have the same views.”
Asked whether Obama would pledge, as McCain has done, to not pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians or Arab states, the diplomat said Obama “is not going to push Israel for concessions, but he is going to engage. It has been a huge mistake to disengage.”
According to Ross, a central figure in Mideast negotiations before and after 1993’s Oslo Accords, the United States “can’t afford to walk away the way we have, because it strengthens the hand of Hamas; it strengthens the hand of the Islamists…. Today, Hamas is strong in Gaza in no small part because there was no process.”
‘Failed American policy’
But, Ross said, Obama would “absolutely not engage with Hamas or Hizbullah. We do not engage with non-state actors. If Hamas wants to transform itself and recognize Israel, renounce violence, and recognize previous agreements, that’s a different story.
Dennis Ross with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Photo courtesy Washington Institute for Near East Policy
“Obama’s position is we don’t deal with them. He was against the Palestinian elections. He knew they were a mistake that wound up empowering Hamas, and unfortunately, the Bush administration pushed it.”
Ross said, however, that Obama, if elected, “would engage with Iran because the current policy toward Iran has failed.” McCain often points to Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy to suggest that the Democrat is not tough enough in dealing with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Such criticism has made inroads among Jewish voters, who were outraged by Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, like his anti-Israel and anti-American remarks at his Sept. 23 United Nations speech, and are uncomfortable with dialogue.
“Maybe we should feel more uncomfortable with a failed American policy that has pushed Iran to become a nuclear power,” countered Ross. “The current policy is guaranteed and will guarantee that Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state. That’s what it will do.
“Today Iran is stockpiling enriched uranium. They have half the stockpile they need to create a nuclear bomb. If we stay on the path we are on, we will live with an Iran that has nuclear weapons, which will change the world as we know it, or we’ll use force against it. Both will have terrible outcomes.”
Responding to the contention that George W. Bush is the “best friend in the White House Israel ever had,” Ross said, “During his time, Iran has become a nuclear power and an existential threat to Israel. During his time, Hizbullah has gotten a stranglehold on Lebanon and now has 40,000 rockets. During his time, Hamas has gotten control of Gaza and is turning it into a mini-terror state. He has weakened Israel in terms of the strategic landscape it faces.”
Ross said he “isn’t sure” what McCain’s policies are toward the Middle East.
“I don’t know what his policy is toward Iran because I haven’t heard him articulate it,” Ross said. “If it is more of the same, that means the strategic context is very much against our interest.”
Advice and dissent
Speaking to NJJN, Dennis Ross addressed a frequent critique of Barack Obama made by McCain supporters: that the Democratic candidate’s current and past advisers include various figures hostile to Israel.
Among those coming under criticism in some pro-Israel quarters is Robert Malley, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs.
“Rob Malley is not an adviser to the campaign,” Ross insisted. “It would be good for people to make judgments based on facts, not on mythology. Obama is not listening to him.”
Another figure is Merrill “Tony” McPeak, a former chief of staff in the United States Air Force who supported President George Bush and is now backing Obama.
“McPeak does have a role in the campaign, but at least on Arab-Israeli issues, he does not have a role to play,” said Ross.
Ross, now acting as Obama’s senior adviser on Middle East policy, began government service under President Ronald Reagan as director of Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council. He was director for policy planning in the State Department under President George H.W. Bush and special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton.
Ross is a consultant to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is chair of a new Jerusalem-based think tank, the Institute for Jewish People Policy Planning, funded and founded by the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Malley has been criticized in some parts of the pro-Israel community for writing that Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak shared blame with the late Palestinian Authority president, Yasser Arafat, for the collapse of the Camp David peace talks.
Malley has also suggested that Hamas leaders as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas be included in future negotiations with Israel.
In February, Ross joined other officals in signing a letter saying Malley is a “talented public servant who has worked tirelessly over the years to promote Arab-Israeli peace and U.S. national interests.”
McPeak, a former chief of staff in the United States Air Force, was active in several Republican presidential campaigns and had been a supporter of President Bush before endorsing Obama.
In a 2003 interview with the Oregonian, McPeak was asked why the United States lacked a “long-term strategy” to get “the Israelis and the Palestinians together.”
McPeak replied: “New York City. Miami. We have a large vote…here in favor of Israel. And no politician wants to run against it.”
McPeak’s critics have said that remark indicates he is hostile to the Jewish community. The Republican Jewish Coalition called for Obama to fire McPeak.
In response, McPeak told Shalom TV: “I decided a long time ago that I was on Israel’s side. I’m a long-term admirer of Israel and consider myself a friend of Israel.”
— ROBERT WIENER