US President Barack Obama will probably deliver a final speech on the Mideast before leaving office in January, though he is unlikely to translate the principles of that speech into a UN Security Council resolution, according to veteran US Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross.
Speaking Monday at a symposium in Washington sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Ross said that while it is unlikely Obama wants to launch a big diplomatic initiative before his term ends, a speech laying out the parameters of a Mideast accord was likely, and something Obama would see as his Mideast “legacy.”
Ross, who dealt with Middle East issues under George H.W. Bush as well as under Bill Clinton and Obama, said the president feels that if he sets down a set of parameters about how the conflict could be resolved – even if neither side would accept those guidelines – “over time the rest of the international community and the Israelis and Palestinians will come to realize that these are the only parameters that will actually work.”
According to the former diplomat, who worked in Obama’s Administration during his first term and is currently a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, speeches by presidents at the end of their presidencies “frankly don’t have that big of an impact on anybody.”
Ross said that because Obama’s speech was likely to be balanced in terms of addressing both Israeli and Palestinian needs, it’s parameters could not then be turned into a UN Security Council resolution.
The only Security Council resolution that could be produced at this time is one that precisely spells out what the Palestinians want in terms of borders, a state and Jerusalem, but would then be very vague on Israel’s concerns about security and refugees, he said.
This type of resolution, he added, “would actually make things worse, not better. I don’t think the administration will make a big effort at the Security Council, because I think they realize the likely effect.”
Asked what his advice to the next president would be regarding how to improve US-Israel relations, Ross recommend making very clear that there would be a focus on strictly enforcing the Iranian nuclear deal. This would win immediate points both with the Israelis and America’s traditional friends in the Arab world, he said.
Ross suggested the establishment of a “joint implementation committee with Israel to watch very carefully what is going on with the agreement.” Likewise, he suggested “contingency plan discussions” with Israel and Arab states on “how to contend with Iranian threats in the region.”
Ross also recommended that the next president establish a “back channel” between the new president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, something that does not exist today.
“Re-establish that,” he said of this type of communication channel. “I think there will be a strong impulse on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s side to show that if there were tensions in the relationship, it was not because of him, and he will want to get the relationship off on a good footing. And I suspect the next president here will want to show that things are also on a sound footing as well.”
Ross said he did not know what to expect regarding US involvement in the diplomatic process if Republican candidate Donald Trump would win the elections.
As for a Clinton presidency, he said she would likely commit herself to “working on the issue.” But, he added, there is a big difference between working on the issue and raising expectations that peace is lurking around the corner. There is a range of activities between doing nothing, and “saying we can solve it.”
Ross, whose name has been mentioned as a possible player on Mideast issues in a Clinton administration, said that he thought the issue needed to be dealt with on a number of different levels.
The first thing, he said, was the need to “restore belief” on both sides that things could change and create “a sense of possibility again.”
To do that, he said, it will be necessary to work with each side, “to have them take some steps to demonstrate or manifest a commitment to two-states.”
In addition, he added, “you have to bring the Arab states into this.”
Ross said with the Palestinians weak, divided, and focused very much on who will succeed PA President Mahmoud Abbas, they will find it difficult on their own to do anything. “You need to see if you can create Arab state involvement, Arab state coverage.”
That “coverage,” he noted, is also needed for Israel, since the Israeli public is skeptical regarding what they might receive from the Palestinians, and would like to know what they could expect from the Arab world.
With so many other problems in the region, Ross added, it was unclear whether “the Arab states have enough bandwidth to get involved,” but this needed to be probed.