Ambassadors carry out policy, they don’t make it, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross said Tuesday amid the harsh criticism being leveled at US President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of David Friedman as the next ambassador to Israel.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post what he thought about the Friedman pick, Ross – at a presentation to the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, of which he is co-chairman – said it was “not the norm.”
Then Ross, who has dealt with Middle East issues in the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, added some context.
“Some people have reacted by saying the sky is going to fall. I’ve been in the foreign policy-making business for a long time. Ambassadors provide input, they are not decision makers.”
He said it was important in looking at the Friedman selection to “maintain some perspective on what the role of [ambassador] actually is.”
That being said, Ross characterized Friedman’s comments earlier in the year of J Street as being worse than kapos, concentration camp prisoners assigned by the SS to supervise other prisoners, as being “beyond the pale.”
Friedman, he said, will as ambassador need to interact with all elements of Israeli society, as well as with Jewish delegations from across the political spectrum visiting here.
“So my view of him is that I am hoping some of the things he said in the context of the campaign, were in the context of a campaign. When you are in the role that he is now going to have, he, too, is going to need to operate a little differently,” said Ross. “We’ll see.”
Ross said that he does not personally know Friedman.
On the possibility of Trump carrying out his campaign promise and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, Ross advised not rushing into the move, but rather preparing the ground and perhaps getting some other countries to take the same step at the same time.
Logically, Ross said, no one questions whether west Jerusalem is part of Israel, except those who question whether Israel has a right to exist at all. “In theory he [Trump] could say that he is not changing the status quo, but moving the embassy to where the seat of government is, not preempting the ultimate status of Jerusalem,” Ross said, adding that this is a rational position that can be explained.
However, he added, when it comes to Jerusalem, things are not always “rational and explainable.” In this context, he mentioned the opening of the Old City Tunnels in 1996, when he was Middle East envoy under Clinton, which triggered a week of rioting.
“When you touch Jerusalem, touch carefully,” he advised “And prepare carefully. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, but think how you are going to do it.”
In a Middle East that is more complex than ever and which he predicted will pose Trump with more challenges than any other administration, Ross said there were still a couple of areas of opportunities. One area is Saudi Arabia, where he said dramatic changes are under way, creating the possibility that the Saudis may serve as a model for successfully reconciling Islam and modernity. The second area of opportunity, he said, is the convergence of interests between Israel and some of the Sunni states in the region.
Ross said that while this was not the first time that there was a commonality of interests between Israel and the Sunni states – such a convergence of interests also took place following the fall of the Shah in Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in 1979 – this is the first time that these common interests are being translated into practical cooperation taking place below the radar screen.
Echoing what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying for a number of years, Ross said that the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan see Israel as a partner in dealing with Iran and the threat from Islamic jihadists.
“The Palestinian issue does weigh on them,” he said, explaining why these countries do not “broadcast” their cooperation with Israel. But the fact that the cooperation is not being broadcast does not make it any less real.
And this cooperation, he said, could be an important asset in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Ross acknowledged that traditional bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are unlikely to work, saying that if the Palestinians now view even negotiating with Israel as a concession, then what can be hoped to be achieved at the negotiating table.
They need “Arab cover” to make any concessions, he asserted.
And on Israel’s side, there is little trust in Jerusalem that it will be able to get anything from the Palestinians, he said, and as a result, a process may work if Israel believes it will get something in return for concessions from the Arab states.
“I am not sure if this is important enough for leading Arab states to expose themselves,” Ross said. “I don’t know if it matters enough.” The new administration, he said, should test this out, but do so with discretion, not through “big public initiatives.”