“Since the Reagan administration, Dennis Ross has played a crucial role in crafting Middle East policies that never served peace, which is today farther away than ever. His efforts, which contributed to the growth in the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories from under 200,000 in the 1980s to nearly 600,000 today, were marked by litany of failures. It is long overdue for him and the bankrupt policies he represents to be shown the door.”
Few Palestinians will mourn the resignation of Dennis Ross as the chief White House adviser on the Middle East. For most of his professional career, Ross’ work has been marked by an extreme and evident bias towards Israel, often to the detriment of other American interests in the region. For many, Ross’ approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflected the shortcomings of American mediation and underscored the United States’ inability to act as an “honest broker”. Although he is no longer at the helm of U.S. strategy-making towards the Middle East, Ross’ myopic understanding of the region and its people is likely to remain influential in shaping U.S. policy towards the region for some time to come.
“Religiously Observant and Enthusiastically Zionist”
Dennis Ross was raised in Marin County, California by a Jewish mother and Catholic stepfather. The 1967 War, and Israel’s defeat of its Arab neighbors, had a major effect on Ross’ identity, causing him to become “religiously observant” and full-heartedly embrace Zionism.
During the Administration of President Jimmy Carter, Ross worked in the Pentagon under Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a future leader of neo-conservativism and a die-hard Zionist. It was there that Ross co-authored a study urging greater U.S. intervention in the Gulf to maintain control over oil supplies and to prevent the Arab countries from using oil embargoes to respond to Israeli aggression in the region.
During the Reagan Administration, Ross served as Director of the Near East and South Asian Affairs in the National Security Council, an agency influential in formulating and executing on a number of national security and foreign policy matters. It was during this period that Ross formally became part of a neo-conservative political-intellectual elite with ultra-Zionists leanings.
Although in the early 1980s, Ross briefly left politics to enter academia, he was never far removed. With Martin Indyk, former deputy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Ross co-founded the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) in 1985. While AIPAC focused on lobbying Congress, WINEP acted as AIPAC’s think tank and advocated pro-Israel policies to members of the Executive branch. Notably, Ross’ first paper for WINEP called for a Middle East envoy who was a “non-Arabist” and, therefore, would “not feel guilt about our (the US’s) relations with Israel.” Rashid Khalidi has dubbed WINEP “the fiercest of the enemies of the Arabs and the Muslims,” while John Mearsheimer and Stephen Waltz have described it as “part of the core” of the Israel lobby in the United States.
“Most Influential American Figure in Negotiations”
During the Administration of George H. W. Bush, Ross served under James Baker as head of Policy Planning in the State Department. During his tenure at State, Ross handled the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as well as the failed, U.S.-orchestrated Madrid Summit in 1991 convened in response to the First Palestinian Intifada. During the First Intifada, Israeli tanks and heavily armed soldiers faced unarmed Palestinians civilians engaged in various forms of civil disobedience, including stone throwing, in protest against the Israeli occupation. As head of Policy Planning, Ross shaped the U.S. position towards the Palestinians during the Madrid Conference, notoriously controlling the flow of information and narrative presented to the White House.
At the urging of American-Israeli tycoon Haim Sabah – one of the top donors during Clinton’s presidential campaign – Ross was appointed Middle East envoy by President Bill Clinton in 1993. During the Clinton Administration, Ross was central in the negotiations and signing of the Oslo Accords. The Accords enabled Israel to further its colonization of the Palestinians territories, established a toothless and subservient Palestinian Authority, and deferred key issues, such as refugees and borders, to an undefined time. During this period, the United States’ shift towards Israel’s conservative Likud party-line and focus on Israeli interests had its roots primarily in Ross’ influence.
During and after the negotiations, Ross remained biased towards Israel, always privileging Israeli security concerns and justifying Israeli violations of the negotiations process. Ross was also heavily involved in the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty and worked unsuccessfully to urge Syria to sign a peace deal with Israel. During the Camp David talks in 2000, Ross, who had earned the title of “Israel’s lawyer,”alienated and belittled the Palestinian side to such a degree that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat personally asked Clinton to remove Ross from his post.
A personal account from Robert Grenier further illuminates how Ross shaped U.S. policy and how he was enabled to do so because of the structural foundations of U.S. policymaking:
“During his eight years as chief architect of the peace process under Bill Clinton, Dennis was not so much a cause as a symptom of the deep, disqualifying political dysfunction at the heart of US policymaking in the Middle East. Without the dysfunction, you would not have had a Ross to exploit it.”
Architect of Wars, Maker of Presidents
After the Clinton Administration, Ross returned to WINEP and became the chair of a Jerusalem-based think tank called the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute , established by the Jewish Agency for Israel in 2002. During this period, Ross moonlighted as a speaker for various pro-Zionist and neo-conservative groups and was among those making the case for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
After the 2003 Iraqi invasion, Ross joined John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and other neo-cons in writing “Meeting the Challenge: US Policy Towards Iranian Nuclear Development,” a report which has been described by political analyst Jim Lobe as “a road map to war” with Iran.
During Obama’s election run in 2008, Ross acted as Obama’s connection to the Israeli lobby in the US and his representative to pro-Zionist Jewish organizations. Along with James Steinberg and Daniel Kurtzer, Ross authored Barack Obama’s address to AIPAC in June 2008, inserting the line in Obama’s speech stating that Jerusalem must be the undivided capital of Israel.
Ross was subsequently appointed to be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Special Advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, but left shortly thereafter for the post of Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, which included the entire Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Asia.
Obama’s attempt at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue and obtaining a final settlement fell victim to Ross’ machinations. In particular, Ross butted heads with then-Middle East envoy George Mitchell, the former U.S. Senator who had successfully brokered peace in Northern Ireland during the Clinton Administration. Ross persistently supported the Israeli position, refusing to meet with Palestinian representatives, undermining Mitchell’s attempts to rebuild trust, and constantly blocking any positions that were unfavorable to Israel.
A Temporary Departure
Upon the announcement of his departure, AIPAC hailed Ross’ legacy: “In his tireless pursuit of Middle East peace, Ambassador Ross has maintained a deep understanding of the strategic value of the US-Israel relationship and has worked vigorously to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Ross steps down at a time when the “Peace Process” is in shambles, the drum-beat of war against Iran is increasing, and a wave of uprisings has engulfed the region. Despite his departure, the Obama administration remains completely dominated by Ross’ position. In the words of one commentator, the Administration’s actions are “on automatic pilot, enhanced by direct demands from AIPAC and Netanyahu that will invariably get a positive response. Ross was a middle man and a middle man is no longer necessary.”
Ross will rejoin WINEP for now, but his desire to make and enact government policies has not waned. However he may influence these policies in the future, we should expect his effect to be as destructive, belligerent, and miserable for the people of the region as they have been over his decades long government service.