ADONI: Obama’s man on the Middle East October 7, 2010


by Lamis ADoni  -  Aljazeera -  7 October 2010

The draft letter written by the Obama administration to Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and revealed by David Makovsky on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has Dennis Ross written all over it.

The veteran American negotiator who has championed Israeli security needs while repudiating Palestinian rights for the past two decades reportedly convinced Barack Obama, the US president, that the letter of assurances and incentives was necessary to persuade Israel to extend the settlement freeze that expired at the end of last month.

At first glance, the letter appears to be trying to accommodate the Palestinian demand for a freeze in settlement construction in return for the resumption of stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Strengthening Israel’s hand

But the equation is hugely unbalanced. In exchange for a partial two-month settlement freeze, Israel is offered US endorsement of all of its “security needs” – as defined, of course, by Israel.

Included within this are assurances aimed at stopping the infiltration of weapons into Palestinian territories and the positioning of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley – all of which is consistent with the Israeli vision of a demilitarised Palestinian state. The letter effectively offers to consolidate the integration of Israeli security interests into US national strategy and pledges to engage Arab parties and Israel in discussions on a “regional security architecture”; a convoluted euphemism for an arrangement to address Israel’s need to confront Iran.

Furthermore, the letter promises that after the initial 60-day extension of the freeze, the US would not ask Israel for another – leaving the status of the settlements to be decided only as part of final status negotiations.

The terms are such that they would only serve Israel’s strategic goals and further strengthen the Israeli hand at already asymmetrical negotiations.

Under such conditions, the construction of colonies would continue unabated as soon as the extended freeze expired, leaving Palestinians unable even to raise the issue of Israel’s ongoing land grab. The letter offers Israel what it wants, while effectively setting the stage for the legitimisation of settlement building and the fulfillment of Israeli plans to annex the major settlements as part of a final deal.

No surprises, no secrets

But as damaging as these assurances are to Palestinian interests, they should not come as a surprise. After all it is not the first time that Ross has helped find “a solution” to an impasse in Israeli-Palestinian talks in a way that provides strategic benefits to Israel.

In 1997, during negotiations over the Hebron Protocol, Ross played a crucial role in convincing Netanyahu, who was prime minister then too, to accept a partial withdrawal from the Palestinian town.

He is also said to have written a memo that – for the first time since the 1993 Oslo Accords – stipulated that future Israeli implementation of its obligations under the agreement hinged on Palestinians meeting Israel’s security requirements (as defined by Israel).

During the Camp David talks in 2000, according to his published memoirs, Ross pushed for Israeli “security need” to take top priority while dismissing any discussion of Palestinian rights.

But the US diplomat’s bias in favour of Israel is hardly a secret. Palestinian negotiators have always complained that Ross was bargaining on behalf of Israel, while other Obama aides have more recently accused him of placing Netanyahu’s concerns above all others.

The international law impediment

Ross’ imprint on the letter is testimony to his influence over Obama – an influence that took root long before Ross was moved from his position at the State Department to the White House in the summer of 2009.

He has come to represent continuity in US foreign policy – having held positions under George Bush Snr, Bill Clinton, George Bush Jnr and now Obama. And even when he took a break from these positions, he worked for the influential Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which gave him a forum from which to influence decision makers and to shape media and public perceptions.

WINEP was a perfect fit for Ross as it has become the most influential think tank openly promoting Israeli interests and goals as the basis for discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Ross, who as an official stays away from public statements, openly articulated his pro-Israeli views in a book he co-authored with fellow WINEP associate David Makovsky, in which he argued that the US should foster a partnership with Israel in its policy towards Iran.

But it was his memoirs that revealed the true extent of his support for Israel and his dismissal of Palestinian rights. For Ross, Palestinians are held hostage to a culture of victimhood that breeds a sense “of entitlement” to land and self-perceived rights without paying attention to “Israeli needs”.

The Orientalist view Ross espouses discards Palestinian rights as a subjective narrative existing only in Palestinian eyes. International law and UN resolutions that affirm Palestinian national rights are, in his view, a cumbersome impediment to finding a solution on the premise of “Israeli needs”; a view reflected in the letter’s promise to veto any UN Security Council resolutions during the one-year negotiating period.

But Ross is not alone within the US establishment in dismissing UN resolutions relating to Israel and Palestine, for US policy in general is based on the belief that Israeli military-imposed facts on the ground should determine the shape of a final solution to the conflict. In other words the party that controls the land determines the parameters for a solution.

Wielding influence

Ross’ blatant bias against the Palestinians was already well known when the Obama administration decided to recruit him as their main advisor on Middle Eastern affairs.

But Ross’ value was not based simply on his knowledge and experience of the region. His initial role was to garner votes for Obama within pro-Israeli Jewish circles.

In June 2008, he was sent to Florida, a swing state, to convince pro-Israeli Jewish voters that Obama was a true friend to Israel. He also gave interviews to Israeli newspapers to placate Israeli fears.

After the elections Ross became the point man on Iran at the state department. A former member of the Obama campaign, visiting the Middle East after the elections, told me that Arabs had no need to worry about Ross because he would not have Obama’s ear as long as he was at the State Department.

But, in the summer of 2009, all that changed when Ross was promoted to the role of special assistant to the president and head of “the region” at the National Security Council. His influence – and that of his former associates at WINEP – can now be clearly detected.

Obama had initially stated that a halt to settlement building was a prerequisite to the resumption of negotiations. In a speech to the UN he even called the settlements illegal. But then WINEP stepped in. Ross’ former associates began a campaign portraying Obama’s statement as a policy error or even a blunder that should be rectified.

In their articles and media appearances WINEP fellows sought to divert attention from the settlement issue and to place the “Iranian threat” at the centre of US policy towards the region.

Obama, meanwhile, was gradually abandoning his position.

Even as Israel agreed to a partial 10-month settlement freeze under US pressure, Ross and Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, were negotiating the very terms that appeared in the letter.

Under the guise of meeting Palestinian demands, the letter aims primarily at repudiating international law and UN resolutions once and for all, while making Israeli “security needs” the main focus of final status talks.

But Ross is no superman and his influence does not represent some kind of Jewish conspiracy. What it does expose is a system that allows him, and other Jewish and non-Jewish officials within the administration, to wield such enormous influence.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

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